Bishops Set Guidelines for Sexual-Abuse Cases; Church Courts to Decide Priests' fates.(PAGE ONE)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 14, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Bishops Set Guidelines for Sexual-Abuse Cases; Church Courts to Decide Priests' fates.(PAGE ONE)


Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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