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Spotlight Report

Vatican, bishops agree on new rules

Policy will protect priests and children, say officials

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 10/31/2002

Acting with surprising speed, the Vatican has reached an agreement with four US bishops on proposed changes to a sexual abuse prevention policy that church officials say will beef up priests' rights but also protect children.

Church officials in Rome and the United States yesterday declined to release details of the changes, which were sought by the Vatican after top officials there expressed concern about the nationwide policy overwhelmingly approved by the American bishops in Dallas in June. The Vatican worried that the American bishops had endorsed too broad a definition of sexual abuse, had ceded too much power to lay boards, and had taken away too many due process rights from accused priests.

In a brief statement yesterday, the lead American negotiator said the proposed changes will still protect children, but will respond to the widespread concern about priests' rights voiced by critics of the bishops' policy over the last four months.

''We believe that the goals of the Dallas decision, i.e. to protect minors and to reach out to victims, have been preserved,'' said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago. He said the documents would now more fully ''respect the rights of priests who have been accused.''

The Vatican's only comment came in the form of a two-sentence statement, in Italian, declaring that the four bishops named by the pope, and the four bishops named by the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, had reached agreement after just two days of talks in Rome. In the statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described the proposed changes as ''suggestions.''

Vatican observers said the brevity of the talks suggests that the bishops did not have to fully rewrite the policy approved in Dallas, and that there was no broad disagreement. The negotiators included Vatican bishops who had been critical of the American policy and American bishops who are known as particularly loyal to Rome.

''My suspicion is that the result will be a narrowed definition of sexual abuse, the restoration of some procedural guarantees for accused priests, and I'm sure we're going to see those lay review boards defined clearly as advisory rather than decision-making,'' said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''This was not really a negotiation. The Vatican was saying, `This is what we will accept,' and then it was a scribal task to rewrite.''

George had made it clear, when he was appointed to the commission last week, that any final policy must call for the removal of abusive priests from ministry.

''The shared goal of the Holy See and the US bishops remains the safety of every minor child,'' he said. ''The means to achieve this goal remains the removal of priests who are guilty of sexual misconduct with minors.''

The proposed changes will be presented as recommendations to the American bishops at their regularly scheduled fall meeting, which begins Nov. 11 in Washington. If the bishops agree to amend their ''Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,'' the Vatican would be expected to approve the policy, making it binding on all American bishops.

''The bishops will either approve it, or, if they don't like it, they can tell them to go back and talk some more,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly.

The American negotiators - George, Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. - were traveling back from Rome yesterday, and their staffs declined to comment on the policy.

The Vatican had outlined its objections to the American policy in a letter to the bishops earlier this month from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops. Referring to the lay review boards that are supposed to examine accusations against priests, Re had said that parts of the policy ''can be the source of confusion and ambiguity,'' apparently because they might undermine the authority of bishops.

Re also expressed concern about how the charter conformed with parts of canon law, which gives priests certain due process rights before they can be removed.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/31/2002.
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