- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

VATICAN CITY The Vatican yesterday approved the revised U.S. bishops' policy to combat sex abuse by the clergy, declaring the need to restore the image of the priesthood in a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

The policy will be binding on U.S. dioceses.

Approval had been expected after differences over the original plan were worked out by a joint U.S.-Vatican commission in November.

The policy allows bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation accusation is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the priest who has been accused is to be put on leave and must go before a clerical tribunal so that his guilt or innocence can be determined.

The earlier policy approved in Dallas five months ago allowed church leaders to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as they are accused. Vatican officials expressed concern that the approach denied priests due process.

Under the revised policy, bishops are compelled to obey local civil law on reporting abuse accusations, but not more than that. The church leaders, however, have pledged to report to civil authorities all such accusations involving children.

The Vatican released a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, informing him of the Holy See's approval and pledging its support to "combat and to prevent such evil."

The Vatican announcement came three days after Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston, removing a figure who was a flash point for victims' groups, lay Catholics and some priests.

Cardinal Re said that "it appears necessary to devote every available resource to restoring the public image of the Catholic priesthood."

The Vatican, together with the U.S. bishops, "feels duty-bound" to defend "the good name of the overwhelming majority of priests and deacons," he said.

The Italian prelate, who heads the Congregation of Bishops, called sex abuse "one of the most serious offenses" committed by any priest and noted that the American policy could lead to dismissal from the priesthood. But Cardinal Re noted that the revised policy protects the "inviolable human rights" of the accused.

The cardinal asked the U.S. bishops to continue their meetings with the heads of religious orders who have concerns about their members coming under the policy.

The policy comes up for review in two years.

Cardinal Re's letter stressed that the Vatican will not tolerate sex abuse of children, saying that the pope has affirmed "the Holy See's aversion to this betrayal of the trust which the faithful rightly place in Christ's ministers, and to ensure that the guilty will be appropriately punished."

Sex-abuse scandals have also erupted in other countries, including Ireland, Argentina and the pope's native Poland.

The U.S. bishops, in the face of accusations pouring out since January, decided to adopt their own special rules. Germany's Roman Catholic Church also has arrived at a national policy, after previously recommending that each diocese deal with such accusations on its own.

The U.S. bishops say that the revised guidelines still require clerics to be removed from public ministry celebrating Mass, teaching in Catholic schools, wearing a Roman collar if found guilty of abusing a minor even once.

Under the new policy, bishops can also ask the Vatican to waive the church's statute of limitations, which requires victims to come forward by age 28.

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