- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops said yesterday that they will spend the next nine months deciding whether to make any changes in the policy they enacted at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis that includes permanently barring guilty priests from church work.

The review was mandated in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” the document the bishops adopted at an emotional June 2002 assembly in Dallas. The prelates’ aim was to restore badly shaken trust in their leadership.

The 2002 policy required dioceses to put safeguards in place against abuse and hire victim-assistance coordinators. Among other reforms, it outlined the process that bishops should follow in investigating molestation claims.

But the centerpiece of the plan was a pledge that any priest who molested a minor would never again be allowed to serve in the ministry. Victims demanded that the policy be adopted because some bishops previously had moved abusive clergy members among churches without telling parishioners, leaving children vulnerable.

Many priests and others in the church protested this provision, however, which was dubbed “zero tolerance,” saying it ignored research that found that some molesters could be rehabilitated. They claimed the policy also violated Catholic teaching on forgiveness.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not address any specifics of the policy in its brief press release last night announcing the review.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, who will oversee the review as head of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sex Abuse, wrote recently that a statistical study that the bishops commissioned on five decades of clergy sex abuse indicated “zero tolerance” was necessary.

That study, released in February, found that even in cases with a single victim, abuse often occurred over long periods of time, even years. The study found 4,392 priests were accused of molesting more than 10,000 minors from 1950 to 2002.

Writing in the Oct. 18 edition of America, a Jesuit magazine, Archbishop Flynn noted that the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice showed that the problem was “more prevalent than we thought.”

“The reassignment of even one priest who then harms another child is utterly unacceptable,” he wrote.

Illinois Justice Anne Burke, head of the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel the bishops formed to monitor their reforms, said in a phone interview that the board has already met twice with Archbishop Flynn’s committee to discuss the review. Among the provisions she expected the bishops will examine is the definition of sex abuse, which many consider too broad.

“Certainly, the National Review Board agrees with the victims’ groups that we cannot retreat now from what we set forth, to make environments safe for children,” she said. “If zero tolerance is something that needs to stay to make children safe, then we’re going to request that zero tolerance stay.”

Archbishop Flynn has asked the bishops to hold meetings on the policy with their local lay review boards, priests’ councils, parish councils representing lay people and child protection personnel and report back to the committee by Jan. 15.

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