Bishops' 'Zero-Tolerance' Policy Faces Test ; Vatican Is Expected to Give a Tentative Go-Ahead to US Crackdown on Priest Abuse

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bishops' 'Zero-Tolerance' Policy Faces Test ; Vatican Is Expected to Give a Tentative Go-Ahead to US Crackdown on Priest Abuse


Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Pope John Paul II is expected to give neither a red nor green light, but a yellow cautionary signal to US Catholic bishops and their controversial national policy on sexual abuse.

Sources familiar with a Vatican letter expected to be issued Friday morning say it calls for more dialogue between the Holy See and the American Church to resolve outstanding differences.

The Vatican letter comes amid a Rome visit by Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At issue is the so-called "zero tolerance" plan hammered out four months ago in Dallas by US bishops. It calls for removing priests permanently from ministry for a single act of sexual abuse against a minor, and for steps such as reporting all abuse allegations to civil authorities.

Since then, public outrage has simmered down, but distress among the clergy and church lawyers has increased.

Many priests feel confused about their rights. Some, worrying about false accusations, say that the bishops' plan - put together in haste - has run roughshod over due process. And there is concern in Rome and the US that the bishop-priest relationship is suffering.

"Many priests feel that the relationship has become somewhat adversarial, and that priests are assumed guilty until proven innocent," says the Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

The Vatican's reluctance to formally approve the bishops' proposals - which would make them binding on all bishops - comes amid wider debate over the US bishops' policy.

Priests call for due process

Some observers claim that bishops, after failing for years to address victims' allegations adequately, are leaning too far in the other direction and brushing off denials by priests. At least 300 priests have been removed from the ministry in 2002.

Last month, some priests protested loudly when Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler, in responding to the call for more transparency, made public the names of all archdiocesan clergy accused of abuse in the past seven decades.

Lay groups are forming to support accused priests and raise money for lawyers. A new priests' group has formed in New York called Voice of the Ordained, to stand up for priests' concerns.

Last week at the annual meeting of the Canon Law Society of America, canon lawyers discussed the need to come to the aid of bishops, victims, and the accused in interpreting the policy - and carrying out investigations.

According to Patricia Dugan, a canon and civil lawyer in Philadelphia, "This is such a massive undertaking, and there just aren't enough experienced people to handle the process." She says the way some priests are being treated "would never be abided in any civil law system."

In a recent issue of the Jesuit weekly America, the Rev. John P. Beal, associate professor of canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, identified what he termed "profoundly disturbing" aspects of the Dallas charter, including:

* A definition of sexual abuse that is "exceedingly broad and vague. …

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