Bishops Walk Fine Line on Abuse Policy ; Revised Plan Aims to Uphold Church Law and Due Process for Priests. Critics Call for Deeper Reforms

Article excerpt

As it prepares to meet next week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops walks a delicate line in seeking to finalize church policy on sexual abuse by priests.

With the issue less in the media glare than it was earlier this year, bishops have been under pressure from the Vatican to tone down dramatic June proposals that involved "zero tolerance" for wayward priests - to prevent any weakening of the church's canon law.

At the same time, pulling back too far could rekindle frustration among Catholics nationwide. Many want assurance that a decades-long problem has been corrected.

This challenge is reflected in the changes to the policy on abuse released earlier this week - and the response to it by critics.

The bishops' conference said the revised plan held firm on its pledge of zero tolerance while providing essential due process for priests who are accused.

To victims seeking redress and to other lay Catholics, however, the changes represent a clear retreat. They say the revised policy gives more discretion to bishops rather than increasing their accountability, backpedals on the commitment to report all allegations to civil authorities, and may allow priests with incidents of abuse in the distant past to remain in ministry.

The 10-year statute of limitations in church law will once again apply, unless the Vatican gives an exemption on a particular case.

"If the Vatican doesn't give an exemption, older priests could stay in jobs and be a threat to children," says David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. Some 85 percent of victims don't come forward until later in their lives, he adds, "so people once again may suffer in silence."

The changes also weaken the lay role in the process, while introducing church tribunals presided over by clerics as the judicial process to be followed before any priest can be permanently removed. The tribunals would take place behind closed doors, counter to calls for transparency in the process.

US bishops will meet at their annual convention in Washington Nov. 11-14 to vote on the revisions, which then must go back to Rome for final approval and incorporation as a "particular law" (pertinent only to the US) within church law.

The Vatican refused to accept the policy bishops approved last June in Dallas, which it said included a definition of sexual abuse that was too ambiguous, improperly eliminated the statute of limitations, and failed to conform with canon law in regard to due process. A "mixed commission" of US bishops and Vatican officials met in Rome last week to prepare the revision.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of US Conference of Catholic Bishops, rejected the notion the reforms had been watered down: "This particular law will provide every diocese in the country with standards in canon law for protecting children and young people, reaching out to victims, assessing allegations against clergy, with the benefit of the advice of competent lay persons, and for keeping from ministry anyone who would harm children."

At the same time, the changes bring the policy firmly into conformity with church law, and would remedy concerns Vatican officials apparently had that too much deference was being paid to both laity and civil authorities in the process. …

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