The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


US bishops OK revised policy on sex abuse

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/14/2002

WASHINGTON - The Catholic bishops of the United States yesterday overwhelmingly approved a set of controversial changes to their national child- protection policy, bolstering priests' rights even as the bishops insisted that they remain committed to removing from ministry any priest who has ever abused a minor.

Acting in response to a crisis that exploded in Boston in January, the bishops said they hope the combination of their actions in Dallas in June and in Washington this week will allow them to move beyond the painful scandal that has rocked the church, tarnishing its reputation and influence.

''We acknowledge our mistakes in the past where bishops have transferred priests who had abused minors from one assignment to another,'' the bishops said in a joint statement. ''We recognize our role in the suffering this has caused, and we apologize for it ... We take responsibility for dealing with this problem strongly, consistently, and effectively in the future.''

The revised rules approved by the bishops, at the insistence of the Vatican, reinforce the purely advisory role of lay boards in reviewing allegations against priests, clarify the definition of sexual abuse, and strengthen the rights of the accused by declaring that they are entitled to trials before church tribunals. The revisions were approved on a vote of 246-7.

The bishops said the new procedures will reinforce the basic commitments they made to the nation's 65 million Catholics five months ago: that they will report all allegations of abuse to public authorities, and that they will remove all abusive priests and deacons from ministry. Those requirements are not spelled out in the rules that, upon approval by the Vatican, will become church law, but are instead included in a charter the bishops approved in Dallas that they said is a morally binding promise to the public.

''The church is, obviously, in a much better place than before we endured this very painful year - painful for everyone in the church,'' said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who is the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''Certainly, we have to begin with those who have been victims of abuse ... but it's been painful for bishops as we come to terms with ... our own mistakes, our own fallibility. It's been painful for our priests, who have endured an awful period of scrutiny and some very unfair judgment. ... It's been painful for diocesan communities, for the faithful.''

Gregory said the bishops, and priests, will have to take further steps to restore trust in the church. Among the steps he recommended is that bishops be ''honest and aboveboard'' in sharing diocesan financial information with the public.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, whose failure to remove abusive priests from ministry sparked this year's crisis, said he was ''delighted'' with the church procedures nationally and in Boston, which he said will lead to greater protection of children.

''I feel very good about where we are,'' he said. ''I feel confident that ... this is a watershed moment in the life of the church in this country in the handling of this issue, and to be a part of that is gratifying.''

Under the procedures adopted yesterday, when a priest is accused of abuse, a bishop is supposed to conduct a preliminary investigation and then, if there is evidence of abuse, notify the Vatican and temporarily remove the priest from ministry. In most cases, the priest would be entitled to a trial before a panel of church judges to determine his guilt or innocence in the eyes of the church.

But the bishops said that they will also report all allegations to secular authorities for investigation under the US legal system. And they pledged that, in every case where an allegation is substantiated, they will deny any job in ministry to the offending priest.

The new rules also declare that no abusive priest or deacon can be transferred to another diocese - a practice that some bishops in the past employed to deal with abusive priests.

The bishops said that, unlike their Dallas policy, the revised document approved yesterday will apply to priests who are members of religious orders, who make up about one-third of US priests.

Victims' groups and lay groups have objected to the revisions, saying that they reduce the importance of lay review boards and increase the opportunity for the church to protect abusive priests. But the critics played little role in this week's gathering. Unlike in Dallas, they were not invited to any formal discussions with bishops, so the advocates and interest groups communicated through protest and news media interviews, and by the occasional buttonholing of bishops who emerged to go to the bathroom or to hail a taxi. The meeting opened with Gregory comparing some interest groups to ''false prophets'' - he said he was referring to groups advocating the ordination of women and abortion rights - but many other groups said they felt that the bishops had become less concerned about their opinions since Dallas. There was, then, ample evidence of dissent at the Washington gathering, but little sign that dissenting views had much influence.

''In my estimation the work done in Rome has really changed the way in which we regard the [Dallas] charter,'' said Bishop James M. Moynihan of Syracuse. Moynihan said he is concerned that the use of tribunals to adjudicate allegations of sexual abuse will slow down the process, because the specialized tribunals don't even exist yet.

''Justice delayed is justice denied,'' he said. ''We're buying a tremendous can of worms. We have no idea as to what's going to be involved.''

A handful of bishops, led by Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., objected that the rules were too strict, saying that in some cases of a single violation long ago, a priest should have an opportunity to serve in ministry.

But the vast majority disagreed.

''Some of us came to Dallas thinking there might be a possibility of forgiveness, and thinking that was possible, but the overwhelming vote of our brothers, and the overwhelming desire of our Catholic people, made that impossible,'' said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington. ''In Dallas, we gave up something, because of a very important situation in the US. We faced a real crisis with our people. We must move forward. We must put an end to this. ... We have no choice.''

During the course of the day, the bishops endured a scolding from the man who led the negotiations with the Vatican over the revised rules, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago. Responding to repeated suggestions that the rules should, in some cases, allow a priest who abused just one minor, long ago, to be restored to ministry, George angrily reminded the bishops how they got into this mess.

''The scandal of the church has arisen because, not only have priests and deacons and some bishops sexually abused minors and betrayed their vocation, but also because bishops in various parts of the country over the years have inappropriately protected priests who have been guilty of this crime,'' he said. ''... The bishop has moved, in a very inappropriate way at times ... to protect a priest when he should not have protected a priest, but should have protected first of all his children. ... It is a kind of a culture that protects our own that has to be brought into question at this point. It's pathological.''

George called the scandal a ''truly shameful affair,'' and a ''terrible scandal which some of our own actions have embroiled us in.''

''We find ourselves humbled, as bishops and as servants of the Lord,'' he said. ''But humiliation can be a step on the path to purification, and the path to purification is always the path to holiness.''

The bishops also decided to include a brief amended statement on their own accountability. They simply promised to keep one another aware of allegations against bishops, after a number of bishops complained that the original version of the document did not clearly acknowledge and apologize for the misconduct of bishops.

Law spoke briefly about his own role in the crisis during an interview with the Globe at the close of yesterday's session of the semiannual meeting of the bishops' conference.

''I am trying, as I have been trying, to be as effective and faithful an archbishop as I can be,'' he said. ''Obviously, these 10 months have been extraordinarily difficult ... but with the help of competent and dedicated colleagues, I believe that we're at a good point here in terms of dealing with this issue.''

Law said his work on clergy sexual abuse will continue indefinitely.

''The outreach to victims is something that's going to take a long, long, long time - I wouldn't ever put a time on that,'' he said. ''I think that that's going to be part of our ministry going forward, and a very significant part of our ministry.''

Law said the news media will play a role in determining how the public views the church.

''As people begin to appreciate what it is that has been done over the past 10 months - and I think the press can be of great help in that, simply to tell the story of what has been done - I think as that is appreciated by more people, then the trust which has been shaken, and understandably shaken, will begin to be restored, as we work together,'' he said.

Law's appearance at the Washington meeting was very different from his appearance in Dallas. In Dallas, some of his fellow bishops said they were upset with him; yesterday, the assembled bishops gave him a round of applause to recognize the conclusion of his three years of service as chairman of their international policy committee.

At the conference, he led the bishops through a complex debate over a policy on Iraq. At his behest, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve a statement calling for US leaders to ''step back from the brink of war.''

''Based on the facts that are known to us, we continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq,'' the bishops declared. ''We fear that resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.''

The statement continued: ''We pray for President Bush and other world leaders that they will find the will and the ways to step back from the brink of war with Iraq and work for a peace that is just and enduring. We urge them to work with others to fashion an effective global response to Iraq's threats that recognizes legitimate self defense and conforms to traditional moral limits on the use of military force.''

At the close of the day, Law appeared at a news conference to field questions on Iraq. But the only questions were posed to other bishops, about the sex abuse policy, and, perhaps for the first time this year, Law sat in a room filled with reporters without getting asked a thing.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/14/2002.
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