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. …