- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

The U.S. Catholic hierarchy yesterday adopted rules barring priests guilty of a single case of sexual abuse from public ministry and, because of past cover-ups by the bishops, surrendered to church courts the power to handle such cases.
"The important part is that the bishops not look like jury, judge and executioner," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who worked with the Vatican on revising the rules, or norms.
"You are not the judge," he told fellow bishops. "The court is the judge."
The norms, adopted by the bishops in June and revised by the Vatican to add church court procedures to protect the rights of priests, were described yesterday as a definitive solution to a sexual-abuse scandal that has led to 325 dismissals of priests since January.
"I feel sure that we'll get recognizio," or approval, from Rome, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said. "I thank God that it was decided."
Though the norms and a "charter" to protect children include an apology by bishops for reassigning abusive priests, the more than 240 bishops also adopted a self-policing document.
It urges bishops to watch each other for abuses, including sexual affairs by members of the hierarchy, but spells out no formal procedures.
"In the case of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by bishops, we apply the requirements of the charter also to ourselves," said the statement of "episcopal commitment."
During the 10 months of scandal that has engulfed the church, the bishops decided that the best road to restoring trust was to abdicate their total power to deal with abusive priests in favor of independent review boards and civil authorities.
The Vatican, however, urged that the rights of priests be protected, especially in cases of false accusations, so the final norms add a court process and still give the bishops some discretion in cases, consistent with canon law.
The way the church courts will operate and how they will punish priests is not yet explained in detail. Some bishops recommended regional courts. They estimate that 100 to 200 cases of abuse by priests during the past few decades might need to be tried.
A concern of some bishops, however, has been the rehabilitation of priests who are viewed as failing once but able to reverse the behavior and continue at some level of ministry.Seven bishops voted against the policy and six others abstained, but they were outnumbered by the 246 who voted yes.
"Think of Peter and Paul," said Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., noting that Peter denied Jesus three times and Paul killed Christians. In Peter's case, he said, Jesus "not only reinstated him, but made him the leader of our church."
Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde said that while he regretted that under the new rules offending priests "who have been rehabilitated cannot remain in ministry," the penalty is necessary to protect children and for "restoration of trust" in the church.
"I hope that productive avenues can be found to give these priests, no longer in active ministry, new directions for their lives," Bishop Loverde said.
Other bishops made public no such qualms about clamping down.
Bishops covered up priests who were sexual abusers because they "were trying to protect our priests as well as the image of the church," said Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y. "We may not have sinned directly, but we made poor judgments."
To prevent such "poor judgments" in the future, Cardinal George said that under the new norms bishops have "lost that discretionary authority" to decide what to do with priests accused of abuse.
"It is a kind of culture that protects our own that has to be brought into question," he said.
Asked whether church courts could still cover up misbehavior by priests, the cardinal said: "The courts are not a charade."
Victim organizations and watchdog lay groups said the norms still gather all the decision-making under the hierarchy, because the bishop must first be informed and the Vatican has final judgment on what to do with priests.
"It strengthens the hierarchy," said Peter Isely of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The bishop still makes the first assessment. This really puts a moral obligation on the good bishops" to make sure no more cover-ups happen.
A liberal lay activist group, Call to Action, said the norms cut back lay influence in the first hearing of the accusations. "We, therefore, must monitor [the bishops] treatment of victims and perpetrators," the group said.
But Cardinal McCarrick said bishops rarely have had such control over abuse cases, and the new norms make secrecy nearly impossible. "It is so unusual for a bishop to be the first and only one to know" of a complaint, Cardinal McCarrick said.
Bishop Francis Hurley of Alaska said in floor debate that the bishops came down too hard on the priests, who are key to building new trust in the church. "We have not invited the priests to come in and be a part of this," he said.
Bishop James Moynihan of Syracuse, N.Y., said the new court system might be a "can of worms" that would create an unwieldy bureaucracy and hurt the morale of the nation's 46,000 priests. "There's a rush to judgment," he said.
After approval by Rome, the new system will be used for two years and then reviewed for its effectiveness.


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