Bishops alter abuse case procedures

The New York Times, via the International Herald Tribune, Nov. 6, 2002
http://www.iht.com/
Laurie Goodstein

NEW YORK – Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have released their revised policy on sexual abuse by the clergy, and church leaders said they expected that it would be ratified by the bishops next week in Washington and then given Vatican approval.

Clergymen and canon lawyers applauded the revisions, saying they would protect the rights of accused priests. But they were denounced by victims’ advocates who said they feared the revised policy would allow molesters to remain in the ministry and let the church keep accusations secret.

The revised policy, announced Monday, is like the one approved by the U.S. bishops in June in Dallas in that it restates that any priest or deacon who has committed ‘‘even a single act of sexual abuse’’ will be removed permanently from the ministry. But the new policy spells out how clergymen will be able to contest accusations in church courts and at the Vatican.

The new rules were drafted last week by a commission of U.S. and Vatican leaders whose task was to iron out the conflicts between the ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policy approved in Dallas and canon law, which has detailed procedures for trying priests accused of crimes.

As the document circulated Monday, canon lawyers described how the procedure would have to work if it was to conform to church law.

Priests would be presumed innocent and brought before church tribunals made up of priests trained in canon law. Under canon law, the lawyers said, tribunal hearings are not public, and the accusers would probably not be allowed to attend. Victims would be represented in the hearing by a priest serving as prosecutor, known in church parlance as the ‘‘promoter of justice.’’

Under the revised policy, bishops would also have sexual-abuse review boards made up of at least five lay Catholics and one priest.

But the new draft emphasizes that such a board would be a ‘‘confidential consultative body’’ whose role would be ‘‘advising the bishop in assessing allegations of sexual abuse and in determining whether the priest is suitable for ministry.’’

Susan Archibald, president of the Linkup, a support group for victims, said: ‘‘The thing that really disturbs me the most is that this is a return to secrecy. It is really the same philosophy that perpetuated the abuse we have seen for the past couple of decades.’’

Associations of priests and canon lawyers had criticized the Dallas policies for giving bishops too much power to suspend priests without due process. On Monday, members of those groups said they saw this revision as a major improvement.

‘‘At least now I think there’s some uniformity in what has to happen if a priest is accused,’’ Monsignor William A. Varvaro, a canon lawyer and priest at St. Margaret Church in New York, said Monday. ‘‘That’s what due process is.’’

The new policy also gives more control to the Vatican, mandating that American bishops comply with rules set out last year that directed all sexual abuse cases to be forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

That office has the power to decide whether to lift the statute of limitations, which extends until the accuser is 28 years old.

In some more complicated or egregious cases, that office may retain the case of an accused American priest for trial at the Vatican.

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