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Spotlight Report

  John L. Allen Jr.  

US Catholics need answers on sex abuse


BISHOPS WILTON Gregory and William Skylstad, president and vice president of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, are in Rome this week making the rounds of Vatican offices. At the top of the agenda is Vatican reaction to the ''zero tolerance'' norms for sex abuse adopted in Dallas by the American bishops.

Some details of the Vatican's reaction to the US bishops have already been reported, and the full response will be released this morning in Rome.

As reporters and analysts begin to digest the response, the Vatican and the US bishops owe American Catholics detailed and clear answers as to what exactly it means and where we go from here. This is not an abstract theological debate that can be permitted to ''mature,'' to use a favorite Vatican phrase, before definitive answers are given. The rights of both victims and accused are at stake.

The Vatican response, an early draft of which was read to me by a source, is deliberately upbeat, praising US bishops for their work under difficult circumstances. Fair enough. Rome has long been accused of not understanding the unique pastoral pressures facing the American church, but here they seem to be making an effort not to undercut their American colleagues.

Yet there are serious reservations in the Vatican about aspects of the Dallas program. They focus on points where Dallas conflicts with the Code of Canon Law, the body of church law codified in 1983.

Those conflicts include the imposition of a penalty outside canon law's 10-year statute of limitations from the victim's 18th birthday, as well as disregard of the canonical principle that a priest cannot be removed from ministry without a trial.

Canon law also guarantees confidentiality to the accused, a rule that is difficult to reconcile with actions by dioceses nationwide to publicize the names of priests flagged as alleged abusers. Canon law likewise treats removal from ministry as a penalty of last resort, but it is the only option permitted under the Dallas norms.

Finally, Vatican personnel are concerned about the broad definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas charter, which could encompass a wide range of physical and nonphysical acts.

As part of the attempt to accentuate the positive, the Vatican letter makes no direct reference to these conflicts, but instead invites the American bishops into a ''dialogue'' about how the norms might be harmonized with canon law.

It is possible that a ''derogation,'' the technical canonical term for a blanket waiver, might be given to allow US bishops to operate outside of canon law for the two year review period established in Dallas. Yet that would delay the problem, not resolve it.

Victims of sexual abuse have a right to know the law by which cases will be judged. Otherwise, the ''closure'' bishops offer them when a priest is removed from ministry may well be illusory; that priest can appeal to Rome and might be reinstated. Accused priests have the right to know the law by which their case will be judged.

Hence the Vatican and the American bishops must respond to these questions:

Can a priest be permanently removed from ministry for a sex abuse offense, no matter how long ago it occurred?

Can a priest be permanently removed without the right to an ecclesiastical trial?

Can a priest be permanently removed no matter the nature of the offense, and without any intermediary penalties?

If priests appeal their removal, how will Rome rule?

Finally, the Vatican owes full disclosure on another score. On April 30, 2001, Rome issued the document ''Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela'' (Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments). It stipulated that all sex abuse cases must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can take the case or remand it to the local level. The Vatican has created two tribunals to handle the work.

Incredibly, the norms under which those tribunals will operate have never been published. The Vatican has said it will send them to bishops on an ''as needed'' basis. This is an Alice in Wonderland approach to due process; it is a basic principle of jurisprudence that a secret law cannot oblige.

Hence two more questions: Must US bishops report their sex abuse cases to the Vatican, as ''Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela'' requires? When will we see these secret norms?

American Catholics deserve answers. Let's hope Bishops Gregory and Skylstad come home with some.

John L. Allen Jr. is Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of ''Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election.''

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 10/18/2002.
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