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November 16, 2002
Column #1107

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 victims. 

     "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 ministry?"

     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 Church."

     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 process is."

     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?


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