- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

The Vatican is expected today to tell the U.S. Catholic bishops to revise their tough new norms against sexual misconduct by priests to give more protection to accused clerics, as required in the church's canon law.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops, will announce Pope John Paul II's decision at a news conference today at the North American College outside the Vatican.
Vatican sources are telling news organizations that John Paul will, in effect, reject or delay official sanction of the policy the U.S. bishops approved at the June meeting in Dallas until they guarantee that priests will not be railroaded or wrongly disgraced in the rush to stop the sexual-abuse crisis.
The Vatican, according to reports, wants "more dialogue" on these protections, but also acknowledges the need for a rapid response to the 10-month scandal, which has led to dismissal of 300 priests in the United States and several multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
After their Dallas meeting, the U.S. bishops agreed to implement their "zero-tolerance" norms as soon as possible, but said Vatican approval was needed to make them official and to give them the force of law within the church.
The bishops' norms required dismissal of any priest from "any ecclesiastical ministry or function" if there was a "credible" accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.
American priests and canon lawyers have worried that the definition of "abuse" was too broad and that amid the scandal, dubious accusations would be believed too quickly over priests claiming innocence.
"If Rome will emphasize due process for priests, it will be a good thing," said the Rev. Gene Hemrick of the National Institute for Renewal of the Priesthood. "It's not just Rome that wants this, but the canon lawyers in this country have been fighting for that for months."
The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, called the Vatican response "good news."
"It'll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment," said Father Silva, whose group claims more than 20,000 U.S. priests as members.
At the same time, he said, other Catholics may view the Vatican's stance as yet another mandate that does not take American culture into account.
He said that the bishops' 1992 procedures for cases of sexual abuse emphasized both the victim and the accused priest, but that in the pressure of the scandal the bishops had to come down hard on the clergy.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America, said that the Vatican is more likely to issue a "yellow light" than to reject or accept the current norms drafted by the bishops.
"Since the press has not yet seen the document, various spin doctors are fast at work," Father Reese said of the signals coming out of Rome.
But he said, "Just as the ACLU does not want to protect terrorists, neither does the Vatican want to protect sex abusers, but both are concerned about due process."
In recent weeks, news reports speculated that the Vatican was willing to allow the U.S. bishop to go ahead with their "zero-tolerance" norms on a two-year probationary period, and then their effectiveness would be assessed.
Victims groups have warned that the church hierarchy wants to slow down the process so that it escapes the front pages and finally is forgotten.
"Bishops now have to choose: Do they keep kids safe or do they make Vatican bureaucrats happy?" said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Voice of the Faithful, a lay group critical of the abuse cover-up by leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston, said the group supports protection for priests as the church weeds out criminals.
The norms "must protect the rights of accused priests as well as the rights of victims," group spokesman Michael Emerton said.
According to reports, the pope met with Bishop Gregory and two other American prelates yesterday, and the Holy See may set up a division to deal with pedophilia.


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