Catholic Bishops Approve Sex Abuse Policy
WASHINGTON - After 11 months of sexual abuse scandals, America's beleaguered
Catholic bishops voted 246-7 to adopt a compromise sexual abuse policy that will remove any
priest guilty of "even a single act of sexual abuse," while giving any accused priest the right to a
trial and appeal if he feels he has been falsely charged.
The new rules modified a "one strike and you're
out" proposal adopted by U.S. bishops in Dallas last summer because the Vatican said the policy was
"difficult to reconcile" with due process protections afforded to priests by worldwide canon law. Four American prelates
met with four Vatican counterparts to work out the compromise.
Victims of sexual abuse were very critical of the new arrangement.
"The bishops clearly and desperately want to persuade everyone that they have fixed the
abuse problem, but they have caved into pressure from Vatican bureaucrats," said Barbara
Blaine, President of Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), representing 4,300
"It leaves open the possibility of a perpetrator being returned to ministry or remaining in
ministry. We have moved from clear rules and the spirit of transparency that permeated Dallas
back toward secrecy and confidentiality. In Chicago the cardinal removed eight known child
molesters, but five are appealing their removal. Is it possible these known molesters will return to
The process now to be followed is complex. Allegations of sexual abuse by a priest will
first be referred to new Sexual Abuse Review Boards being created in each diocese. If the board
of at least five lay Catholics and one priest believe the accusations are credible, they confidentially
advise the bishop and recommend "whether the priest is suitable for
ministry." If the bishop agrees, the priest is temporarily removed from ministry and the case is forwarded to a Vatican
office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Rome is expected to refer most cases back to American tribunals for trial, but might retain
more complex cases involving multiple dioceses or many victims.
The tribunals, which do not yet exist, will be composed of priests trained in canon law and
will not be public. Accusers will probably not be allowed to attend. Victims will be represented by
a priest. Any priest found guilty could no longer function as a priest or wear the Roman collar,
though he may continue to receive financial support and housing.
Even a priest found not guilty might still be removed from ministry by the bishop if he felt
he is a danger to children. On the other hand, of 24 priests in Boston who have been removed
from ministry this year, one was reinstated after an internal investigation found no substance to
sexual abuse allegations made against him.
"The changes they have made will increase their own discretion and the secretiveness of
the process," said Peter Isely, a board member of SNAP. "It's still all about hierarchy and
secrecy, the things that have practically defined the Roman Catholic
On the other hand, "There's some uniformity in what has to happen if a priest is
accused," said Msgr. William Varvaro, a canon lawyer in Queens, N.Y. "That's what due
Nationally, more than 325 priests have been taken out of ministry this year, against whom
credible complaints have been made. However, dozens of priests are expected to demand church
trials to clear their names.
The bishops have pledged to report all cases to the police, though only 24 states require
that step. Grand juries are considering criminal charges in at least four dioceses. About 100
former priests are now in prison. Another 183 priests have had civil suits settled by their
dioceses, who have reportedly paid nearly $1 billion in damages to victims. The names of both
groups of priests were published last week by SurvivorsFirst, another victims' group.
Public prosecutors say they encourage the Catholic Church to conduct its own
investigations and trials, but only after the local district attorney has looked into a particular case
and decided not to prosecute.
The scandal's impact has been heaviest in Boston, where collections are down 25 to 30
percent. Yet Cardinal Bernard Law has resisted pressures from many Catholics to resign,
although he has acknowledged having knowingly transferred accused priests from one parish to
another, and has asked for forgiveness.
Why has the Pope not asked for his resignation? In my view, he should have done so.
Having no inside knowledge, my theory is the reason he failed to do so is that dozens of American
bishops have also reassigned child molesters.
Where would he draw the line?