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Bishops align abuse policy with Vatican • Wednesday November 13, 2002

Victims call it a major step backward from the original plan
AP, Nov. 13, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) –The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops adopted revisions to their sex abuse policy Wednesday that aim to protect the rights of accused priests while keeping molesters away from children.

The bishops voted 246-7 with six abstentions to approve the new plan, which stipulates that priests should be removed from public ministry — saying Mass, teaching in Catholic schools, wearing a Roman collar — after “even one act of sexual abuse of a minor.”

The policy is virtually assured of becoming church law, binding on all U.S. bishops, after a final Vatican review. Negotiators from the Holy See and the United States revised the policy to satisfy Vatican concerns that the Americans weren’t doing enough to ensure due process for priests.

The bishops, anxious to get past a year of scandal, insist the plan shows that they’re deeply committed to reform. Victims say it is a major step backward from the original plan. (Victims wanted tougher policy)

Cardinal Francis George, who worked on the revisions, said they balance compassion for victims with fairness to priests.

“We are sometimes asked to choose between the accuser and the accused,” he said during the debate before the vote. “We cannot choose one or the other. We have to choose both. We have to love both.”

But victims were not satisfied. They said the plan continues the church’s history of sheltering sexual predators and abandoning the people they prey on.

“The gulf between bishops and the victims and lay people in the church has grown wider by the vote today,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Today there’s a broader burden on the victims.”

Papal concerns

The policy allows bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation claim is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the priest is to be put on leave and go before a clerical tribunal.

Bishops are compelled to obey local civil laws when it comes to reporting abuse claims, but no more than that. The church leaders, however, pledged to report all claims involving children to civil authorities.

The bishops’ vote follows 10 months in which at least 325 of the nation’s 46,000 priests have resigned or been removed from their posts because of accusations of sex abuse, with cases dating back years or even decades.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed this year against dioceses all over the country, and thousands of angry Catholic parishioners have joined reform movements.

At a meeting last June in Dallas, the bishops responded to the public outcry by approving their original policy to crack down on molesters. It stressed bishops’ authority to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as an alleged victim made a claim.

That worried Vatican officials, who said the U.S. bishops weren’t following global church mandates on protecting the rights of priests. The Holy See withheld its approval of the policy — needed to make it U.S. church law — until the plan was reworked. (Full story)

The joint Vatican-American commission handled the revisions in two days of meetings.

Statute of limitations

The new policy also spells out that the church’s statute of limitations requires a victim to come forward by age 28, although bishops can still ask the Vatican for a waiver in special cases.

Review boards including lay people will continue to monitor abuse claims, but the policy reasserts that it is the bishops who have the authority to manage clergy.

Bishop Gerald Gettlefinger of Evansville, Indiana, was among the few prelates who said he was opposed to the policy. He was upset that it does not allow bishops discretion to reinstate a priest who had only one offense and had rehabilitated.

George was firm on that point. “I think we have lost that discretionary authority,” he said.

The crisis started with revelations last January that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law knowingly reassigned a priest who had been accused of abuse and quickly spread to other dioceses.

Law, who has taken more criticism than any other bishop this year, said he was voting for the revisions.

“We have a lot of challenges. Our work isn’t done,” he said. “But thank God we are where we are today. We’re in a much better place than we were 10 months ago.”

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