- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

DALLAS American Catholic bishops adopted a policy yesterday that would bar sexually abusive priests from face-to-face contact with parishioners but keep them in the clergy, after testimony from several abuse victims that drove some bishops to tears.
In a 239-13 secret-ballot vote, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops passed a national policy intended to be binding for 178 mainstream dioceses, a major shift from the voluntary discipline guidelines it has relied on for years. The policy needs Vatican approval to become binding.
"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president. He also apologized for "our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror" of sexual abuse.
Under the measure, called a "charter" or guiding policy, priests who abuse, or have abused, will remain priests, but will be prohibited from celebrating Mass publicly, wearing clerical garb and working in any church or church school position.
In some cases at the behest of the bishop and advice from a predominantly lay advisory board after an in-house investigation the offender could be defrocked, completely removed from the church. Bishops must report all accusations of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities.
Victims, several of whom were across the street from the conference hotel here, said they were generally appalled at the bishops' finely honed effort, saying it didn't specifically punish any bishops several of whom have admitted to covering up such crimes.
Many of them wanted to see offending priests laicized, or kicked completely out of the church, and wanted to see bishops forced to resign for failure to report such crimes to law enforcement officials.
"This is akin to telling a street killer in the city, 'We're going to send you to the country,'" snapped Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "That isn't going to stop them. They will find children to prey upon."
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said the bishops were divided between those who wanted to automatically remove abusers so-called "zero-tolerance" advocates and those who felt some exceptions should be made.
Several questioned whether older priests, perhaps in their 70s or 80s and potentially guilty of abuses decades ago, should be "turned out into the streets," said Cardinal McCarrick, who favored the charter as it was passed.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the policy reflected the need to show "Christ-like compassion" to priests.
"We call them our son," he said. "Therefore, we must continue to have that compassion and forgiveness like any parent."
So many last-minute changes were made to the policy that bishops were unable to provide a full text of the plan when it was adopted. Still, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George urged his fellow bishops to embrace the policy, regardless of their objections.
"We need to pass this policy with all its flaws, some of them very deep indeed," Cardinal George said.
The extraordinarily swift change in church policy, which will be reviewed in two years, comes after months of unrelenting scandal, in which at least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct accusations. Victim after victim has come forward with tortured stories of abuse at the hands of priests and accusations that church leaders merely shuffled molesters among parishes.
As the bishops cheered inside a Dallas hotel, a Nebraska jury was awarding $800,000 to a woman and her son, a former altar boy who was abused by a priest in the 1990s.
The policy, which comprises 3,500 words in 17 articles, says the church would financially support priests removed from ministry and that some abusers may be dismissed from clerical work because of their "advanced age or infirmity." They would largely lead a "life of prayer and penance."
Some abusive priests could be sent to a "house of confinement," the church's version of a halfway house for clergy who require strict monitoring.
After lengthy debate, the bishops agreed that any interaction between an adult and a child for sexual gratification of the adult would qualify as abuse, even if no touching were involved.
Sheila Daley, a member of the liberal Catholic group Call to Action, called the policy "weak" and "inadequate."
"As long as their perpetrator can use the term 'father' to describe himself, he is potentially going to be able to lure another victim to him," Miss Daley said. The group had supported zero tolerance for the worst abusers and a second chance for those guilty of lesser offenses.
The Vatican will be asked to approve parts of the policy to make it law in the U.S. church, which comprises more than 60 million Catholics. Because each diocese answers to Rome, Vatican authorization is necessary to make the policy more than just a gentlemen's agreement.
The Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, had no immediate comment on the policy, but said officials there would review it, in what looks to be a lengthy process.
There have been signs that leaders in Rome were displeased with the reforms the Americans were discussing. Last month, the dean of canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University wrote that bishops should avoid telling congregations that priests had sexually abused someone if the bishops believe that the priests will not abuse again.
The bishops began working on the policy after a summit on the scandal in April between Pope John Paul II and U.S. cardinals. The first draft was released just 11 days ago and was revised in private discussions that culminated in a late-night session Thursday.
The speed with which the document was written and approved was stunning for a church that usually debates issues for years.
"This is a defining moment for us," Archbishop Harry Flynn said as he opened the debate yesterday. "A moment for us to declare our resolve once and for all to root out a cancer in our church."
The church has been under intense scrutiny since January, when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston acknowledged that he had allowed a pedophile priest, John Geoghan, to continue to serve in parishes. Geoghan, now defrocked, was convicted this year of fondling a boy. More than 130 people say Geoghan molested them.
Besides the loss of 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests, victims have filed at least 300 civil lawsuits against church officials, and district attorneys have weighed criminal charges. Four bishops have resigned; two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse; and one priest was shot.
Cardinal McCarrick said this document would enable all parishes in the U.S. to operate under the same guidelines.
"I am often asked, 'How are you going to manifest the accountability of the bishops?'" he said. His answer: "Every diocese will be together, be on the same page, and we will be accountable to make sure we are."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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