New York Times, Oct. 18, 2002
By FRANK BRUNI
ROME, Oct. 18 — The Vatican today rejected an aggressive American policy for dealing with sexually abusive priests, saying that elements in the new “zero-tolerance” approach presented conflicts with established, universal church law and needed to be changed.
The Vatican’s negative response to the policy in its current form came in a letter to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter was made public here today.
The carefully worded letter applauded those bishops’ efforts to stamp out child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, which plunged the church in the United States into crisis this year, but said that “further reflection on and revision of” the American policy were necessary.
It made clear that the Vatican was not endorsing the policy. American church leaders had been looking for such an endorsement in order to bind all American bishops to follow the policy. Without that approval, bishops cannot be compelled to do so.
The Vatican response, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, proposed the creation of a joint United States-Vatican commission to revise the policy.
Bishop Gregory said at an hourlong news conference here today that the commission would try to accomplish its work over the course of the next three and a half weeks, in time for a November meeting of the American bishops in the United States.
He also insisted that he did not interpret the Vatican response as negative and did not think that American bishops who had already instituted the zero-tolerance policy in their dioceses needed to halt or abandon it.
“Nothing in the charter was ruled out categorically,” Bishop Gregory said, referring to the policy. “Nothing has been taken off the table.” He said the Vatican was not throwing out the new policy, which was reached at a June meeting in Dallas, but using it as the template and starting point for the discussions over the coming weeks.
But a senior Vatican official said today that it was clear that elements of the policy that contradicted church law “must be dropped,” making specific reference to established church protections for due process for accused priests.
The zero-tolerance policy, forged at a meeting of the American bishops in June, mandated the removal from active ministry of any priest who sexually abused a child.
It defined child sexual abuse broadly, contained no statute of limitations and, in the eyes of Vatican critics, did not make certain that an accused priest got a full and fair hearing before a punishment was meted out.
One of the Vatican cardinals who reviewed the policy said today that “formulas have to be found which on the one hand are a strong and clear answer to such a serious crime — one of the most serious crimes — but at the same time do not go against the fundamental principles of the church.”
Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the Vatican response “a victory for Vatican bureaucrats and recalcitrant bishops.” He said victims should lobby for changes in United States law that would make it easier to prosecute offenders.
Yet Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus, said that it would be wrong to conclude that the bishops’ efforts were dead.
He urged rank-and-file Catholics to recognize the difficulties of carrying out a plan that was fair to both victims and clergy.
“This is not the end of the game,” Mr. Shaw said. “Everyone would like it to be overnight but it’s too large and complex.”
Mike Emerton, a spokesman for the lay reform movement Voice of the Faithful, said the rejection by the Vatican gives American bishops a “line-item veto,” allowing church leaders to ignore provisions of the plan they oppose.
“It gives the bishops the ability to pick and choose only those portions they feel they would like to implement within their own dioceses,” he said. “This is not something we were looking for.”