- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

VATICAN CITY (AP) The Vatican is leaning toward giving the go-ahead to the U.S. bishops' plan to curb sexual misconduct among clergy, accepting the proposals on an experimental basis, a senior Vatican official said yesterday.

Such a move by the Holy See would give Roman Catholic leaders in the United States time to enact their "one strike and you're out" reform policy without making permanent changes in church law.

In recent weeks the number of reports that the Vatican would reject the policy outright has been growing, embarrassing American bishops as they struggle to deal with the crisis.

The policy "would not receive formal Vatican approval, but nor would it be a rejection," said the official, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Top church officials in Rome have been reviewing the plan since it was adopted at a June meeting of America's bishops, which followed a torrent of sexual misconduct complaints as well as reports of bishops covering them up.

The Holy See is expected to issue its response to the policy Oct. 10 or Oct. 11, the official said.

The Vatican's response has not yet been completed, and some clarifications could be sought, but the idea is to let the bishops go ahead as an experiment, the official said, putting the Vatican's view of the U.S. bishops' action in a positive light.

Growing concern that the policy would not withstand Rome's scrutiny has left U.S. church lawyers, many priests and some Vatican officials complaining that the plan fails to protect the rights of accused clergy.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church," said the approach would buy time for the bishops to determine how the policy works, for the Holy See to conduct a thorough review and "for everybody to cool off."

If the policy were immediately enshrined in church law for the United States, it could set a precedent for other nations.

"I think it shows that the bishops were correct in their evaluation, that despite all the voices in the Vatican that raised questions about the [policy], the bishops knew there was only one voice they had to be concerned about, and that was the pope's, and it looks like the pope is going to back the bishops," Father Reese said.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to comment until the Holy See sends official word of its decision.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a church lawyer and former Washington-based Vatican adviser who now is an advocate for abuse victims, said Rome would be wise to take a slow approach.

Father Doyle is concerned that bishops, desperate to restore their credibility, have been ousting priests without regard to due-process provisions in church law. Since reports of sexual misconduct among its American clergy began rocking the church in January, at least 300 priests have been removed from their ministries.

The provisions the U.S. bishops want the Holy See to approve include requiring dioceses to remove all guilty priests from church work and, in some instances, from the priesthood itself.

They also demand that bishops report abuse of minors to civil authorities. The Vatican traditionally gives local bishops autonomy in handling their dioceses.

Last month, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents religious orders with about one-third of the 46,000 U.S. priests, decided to allow most abusers to continue in church work, away from parishioners.

When Pope John Paul II met with American cardinals in April, he called the sex abuse of children a crime and a sin and said there was no room in the priesthood for wayward clerics.

Speaking at World Youth Day in Toronto in July, John Paul said the scandal caused "sadness and shame."


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