National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

U.S. bishops anticipate review of 'one strike' policy


Within strict limits reflecting American cultural sensitivities, the U.S. bishops may be open to considering exceptions to their “one strike” policy for priest sex abuse when a two-year review rolls around, as well as the definition of abuse, according to the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The comments came from Bishop Wilton Gregory in an exclusive Oct. 22 interview with NCR at the North American College in Rome. They were complemented by views from Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in a separate Oct. 20 interview with NCR. George served on an ad hoc commission that worked out the American norms with the Vatican.

Though the norms were approved by the Vatican on Dec. 8, 2002, their effective date was March 1, 2003. That means they will expire on March 1, 2005, unless the American bishops request an extension and the Vatican grants it.

Gregory said he’s not yet sure what the bishops will request, but said it could be another two-year term, or five, or even 10.

“I assume we will need these norms for some time to come,” he said.

Vatican sources have told NCR in recent weeks that when the review occurs, they intend to pay special attention to two issues.

One is the case of a priest accused of sexual abuse in the past who served whatever penalty his bishop imposed, then returned to ministry with no further infractions, who has been removed again under the 2002 norms. Some critics see this as a form of double jeopardy.

The second concern is the scope of offenses subsumed under “sexual abuse.” Some Vatican officials point to stories of priests removed for pats on the back or relatively innocuous comments, suggesting that the definition of the crime needs to be tightened.

Gregory told NCR that both issues could be reconsidered, but stressed that the Vatican concerns have to be balanced against the realities of the American situation.

On the double jeopardy issue, Gregory said that if there had been a true “juridical or penal process” against the priest under canon law, then it might be illegitimate to move against him again. But in the past, few American bishops actually pursued canonical cases against priests, he said. More often, they sent them off for treatment or rest.

“This is not a penalty under any sense of the term,” Gregory said. “It was a medicinal or remedial move.”

Gregory said that if it is truly the case that a priest disciplined for abuse had no new offenses in the meantime -- a situation he suggested is rare -- it’s possible that the bishops might revise the requirement to permanently remove him from ministry.

Nevertheless, Gregory said, any flexibility would have to be balanced against two considerations: if there is a risk of harm to children, and if there is the possibility of scandal.

George told NCR Oct. 20 that he believes the one-strike policy is “worth revisiting,” but said that in the present context he believes even a priest who meets the profile sketched above should be excluded from ministry.

“Restoring trust in the priesthood and the episcopacy is the most important aim,” George said. “If a child can be spared this terrible, terrible experience, we have to take the strongest way out.”

George said he would be open to discussing ways that such a priest could be “of service” to the church short of public ministry. Gregory, however, said he did not know what such an option would be.

As to the question of the definition of sexual abuse, Gregory said he doubted many priests had been removed for trivial offenses. He said that while he would be open to discussing a more precise standard, it must be situated in the context of contemporary American sensitivities.

“In our society, the definition of what constitutes sexual abuse is largely determined by the recipient,” Gregory said. “We are in the same situation as people in the workplace. Twenty years ago a comment that seemed harmless today might be seen as evidence of a hostile environment.”

George echoed Gregory’s point that any retouching of the norms needs to have the American situation in mind.

“Rome is always good on the facts, but not necessarily on the context,” George said. While issues of double jeopardy and definitions of sexual abuse can be discussed in the abstract, the discussion cannot lose sight of American realities.

“In the end, I have to go back and live where I am,” George said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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