- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

VATICAN CITY The Vatican rejected the U.S. Roman Catholic Church's new sexual-abuse policy yesterday, saying the sweeping zero-tolerance crackdown needed to be revised because elements conflict with universal church law.
While supporting the U.S. bishops' efforts to stamp out clergy abuse of minors, the Vatican said the policy contained provisions that were "difficult to reconcile" with church law, were difficult to interpret and left open procedural questions that needed to be resolved.
"For these reasons, it has been judged appropriate that before the 'recognitio' [Vatican approval] can be granted, a further reflection on and revision of the 'Norms' and the 'Charter' are necessary," the Vatican response said.
Most American dioceses have started implementing the policy, and the leader of the U.S. bishops said they would continue to do so while Rome's problems with the plan are ironed out. But victims were skeptical. They saw the rejection as the collapse of the church's reform effort.
The Vatican response, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, proposed the creation of a joint U.S.-Vatican commission to revise the policy.
The U.S. bishops adopted the plan in June in response to enormous pressure that they take a tough stance against abusive clergy and stem the scandal that has shaken many Americans' faith in church leadership.
Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said yesterday that victims should lobby for changes in U.S. law that would make it easier to punish offenders because it is useless to rely on the church.
"It is evident that the void in moral leadership among Catholic leaders must be filled by regular Catholics, by clergy-abuse survivors and prosecutors," Mr. Serrano said.
In a letter released with Cardinal Re's response, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was "happy to accept" the proposal for a mixed commission to "reflect further on and consider revision" of some of the norms.
Speaking later at a news conference in Rome, Bishop Gregory said he expected the commission to wrap up its work by next month in time for a meeting of all U.S. bishops. "We're dealing with basically a sound document that needs modification rather than recasting," he said.
Asked whether he thought the Vatican would continue to oppose elements of the U.S. proposal that call for a priest's removal, Bishop Gregory replied: "Nothing has been ruled out."
But he also said the Vatican response does not compel bishops already implementing the policy to stop.
"Will they stop? No. And the mixed commission has not asked the bishops to stop pursuing the charter," he said.
"It simply says let us sit down and talk together about issues that need to be clarified or modified so that 'recognitio' can be granted to the norms," he said.
The Vatican letter gave no specifics of the provisions that it found troubling. However, it was clear that certain aspects of the Americans' toughened policy were to blame.
Among other things, the U.S. policy requires dioceses to remove priests from church work once a "credible" charge is made and, in some instances, from the priesthood itself.
The policy essentially rules out the possibility that a priest can be rehabilitated, saying an offender will be relieved of his ministry for "even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor past, present or future."
Ever since it was adopted, Vatican officials and U.S. church-law experts have said the norms might violate church law because they would deprive accused priests of their due-process rights.
The experts have also criticized the broad definition the bishops gave to sexual abuse and the removal of the statute of limitations for claims to be lodged.
Last month, a senior Vatican official told the Associated Press the Holy See was leaning toward giving the go-ahead to the U.S. bishops' plan on an experimental basis. But insistence from some Vatican officials that the U.S. policy could not conflict with universal church law doomed that option, and led to the idea of resolving the two sides' differences in a joint commission.
A senior Vatican official said yesterday that it was clear that the norms that conflict with church law regarding the due-process rights of priests "must be dropped."
At least 300 of the 46,000 priests in the United States have been removed from their ministries since the church scandal erupted in January with the case of a priest in Boston who was reassigned even after charges of molestation reached his superiors.
Since then, waves of accusations have poured in, and many reports have said that church leaders tried to cover up wrongdoing by moving known offenders from parish to parish.

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