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Spotlight Report

Final OK given to US bishops' child-protection policy

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/17/2002

Letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re on new abuse policy
The Vatican has given final approval to a child-protection policy for the American church that requires bishops to remove from ministry any priest or deacon who sexually abuses a minor.

The approval, which was expected, was accompanied by the Vatican's most detailed reaction to the scandal rocking the Catholic Church. A top Vatican official, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, called the situation in the United States a ''crisis'' and expressed sympathy for victims, a desire to see punishment of offenders, and a need to restore the reputation of the priesthood.

''The Holy See is spiritually united to the victims of abuse and to their families, and encourages particular concern for them on the part of the bishops, priests, and the whole Catholic community,'' Re, who is the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote in a letter to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''This closeness is now, once again, confirmed through the approval of the present `essential norms,' which will help to restore, wherever necessary, the trust of the faithful in their pastors, assuring at the same time the defense of the innocent and the just punishment of the guilty.''

The Vatican approval was granted Dec. 8, and was put into effect by Gregory last Thursday. But it was not announced until yesterday by the conference. A spokeswoman for the bishops said she was not sure whether officials intentionally waited until after Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston resigned as archbishop of Boston before making public the news, or whether the timing was coincidental. Law, who had been criticized for failing to remove abusive priests from ministry, had become a symbol of the crisis.

Gregory welcomed the approval of the new rules, which were ratified by the bishops in Dallas in June, but then revised last month in Washington, D.C., at the insistence of Vatican officials. The Vatican wanted the rules altered to more clearly emphasize the rights of accused priests and the authority of bishops.

''I cannot think of a more striking indication of how much the highest authority of the church supports the efforts of the bishops in confronting the evil of child sexual abuse,'' Gregory said of the approval.

Gregory was direct in acknowledging the role of bishops in contributing to the scandal. Many bishops have been accused of failing to remove priests from their jobs, despite knowing they were alleged to have abused minors.

''A number of bishops have added to the impact of this scandal by being, too often, negligent in our vigilance and insufficiently urgent in our response,'' Gregory said. ''Now, all of us bind ourselves by the pledges of the charter and the requirements of the norms to see to it that this cannot happen again.''

Although at last month's Washington meeting Gregory appeared to minimize the role of the laity by calling some unspecified groups ''false prophets,'' yesterday he struck a more conciliatory tone.

''We bishops learned, in sharing our experiences over the past year, that where laity and religious [priests, nuns, and brothers associated with religious orders] were consulted, and that consultation heeded regarding this problem, it was often more effectively dealt with,'' he said. ''We turn to the Catholic people for their help in making this a moment of new creation.''

But Gregory criticized the news media for ''many confused and blatantly erroneous reports'' about the new rules, which, during a period when the bishops refused to release the actual text of the revisions, were characterized in many news reports as having been watered down or weakened by the Vatican.

Victims and victim advocates have been wary of the new rules, which they believe allow too much discretion to bishops, who in the past have failed to take abuse allegations seriously. Some have also argued that the rules weaken the bishops' commitment to report allegations to secular authorities, although the bishops say they are bound to do so by a second document that they say is morally, but not legally, binding.

''The Vatican has OK'd a very flawed document that has already been implemented sporadically across the country,'' said Claudia Vercelotti, the Toledo coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''It will mean a diminished role for Catholic lay people, as well as greater secrecy and less reporting to law enforcement officials when abuse allegation arise within the church.''

But another official of the victims' group, Mike Beam of Sacramento, said the norms are less important than the role of a newly-energized laity.

''The real change in the American Catholic Church this year has taken place in the pews, not on paper, and with rank and file Catholics, not with their leaders,'' Beam said. ''This healthy concern and involvement is what will fundamentally make children safer, not any set of words on a piece of paper.''

Re, the Vatican official, said the new rules would both ''give effective protection to minors and ... punish in a just way those who are guilty of such abominable offenses.'' But, he said, they would also protect the rights of accused priests, which he called ''inviolable human rights.''

Re, echoing remarks Pope John Paul II made in Toronto this summer, also defended the vast majority of priests who have not abused minors.

''The Holy See ... feels duty-bound, in justice and in gratitude, to reaffirm and defend the good name of the overwhelming majority of priests and deacons who are, and have always been, exemplary in their fidelity to the demands of their vocation, but have been offended or unjustly slandered by association,'' Re said. ''Indeed, it appears necessary to devote every available resource to restoring the public image of the Catholic priesthood as a worthy and noble vocation of generous and often sacrificial service to the people of God.''

Addressing one remaining complication, Re urged the US bishops to meet with the heads of religious orders in the United States to work out agreements on how the rules will apply to religious order priests, such as Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.

The rules, in addition to requiring that abusive priests be removed from ministry, require that dioceses have written policies on sexual abuse.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A39 of the Boston Globe on 12/17/2002.
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