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Spotlight Report

Bishops hopeful on abuse policy

They downplay Vatican demand for revisions

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 10/19/2002

Bishop Wilton Gregory said yesterday that he wasn't surprised by the Vatican's response to the US bishops' proposals. (AP Photo)

 Related stories
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 The conflicts
A look at where canon law and the Dallas policy proposal differ

Exchange of letters between the Vatican and the US bishops

American Catholic bishops remained confident yesterday that their zero-tolerance policy on abusive priests will be sustained, even after the Vatican demanded a reexamination of what behavior constitutes sexual abuse by priests and how such behavior is punished.

Throwing into confusion the US bishops' promise to rid the priesthood of child molesters, the Vatican declined to provide blanket approval of the tough sanctions sought by the American prelates. Instead, the Vatican said it wanted to revise portions of the policy, including the definition of sexual abuse and the role of lay boards in determining what becomes of abusive priests.

But top American church officials downplayed the significance of the move, saying that the Vatican simply wants to set up a commission to refine some elements of the policy to make sure it not only protects children but also protects accused priests and is consistent with canon law.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston said he saw no signs of Vatican ''repudiation'' of the US bishops' efforts.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, called the Vatican's action good news because the Vatican reiterated its support for ''condemnation of sexual misdeeds against minors.'' Like several other church officials, McCarrick pointed to the Vatican's pledge to resolve within a month any problems in the policy as evidence that the changes can be accomplished with relative ease.

However, leaders of victims' groups said they were horrified, describing the Vatican's reservations as a prelude to gutting the policy adopted at a June meeting of American bishops in Dallas. Some victims groups have viewed that policy as too little, too late, coming nearly 20 years after reports of sexual abuse by priests began to emerge from southwest Louisiana.

The Vatican action threw into doubt some of the steps most of the nation's bishops have taken since June to adopt a policy that would require that all allegations of sexual abuse be reported to prosecutors and that all abusive priests be removed from ministry.

Implementation of the policy has led to the ouster of about 300 priests nationwide, including 24 in Boston, but it has also led to a rise in complaints from advocates of priests' rights, who say that accused priests are losing their jobs without any semblance of due process. ''The overriding priority is still the protection of young people,'' said Bishop Joseph Galante, a member of the bishops' commission on sexual abuse.

Galante said that he expects bishops to continue implementing the Dallas policy and that he does not believe any change will be made that would end the mandatory reporting of allegations to prosecutors or that would allow priests who have abused children to remain on the job.

The Vatican expressed its views on the policy in a two-page letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The two men said they would set up a commission, made up of four American bishops and four Vatican officials, who will attempt to hammer out changes to the policy before Nov. 11, when the American bishops gather for their fall meeting in Washington.

''Deeply moved by the sufferings of the victims and their families, the Holy See supports the American bishops in their endeavor to respond firmly to the sexual misdeeds of the very small number of those who minister or labor in the service of the Church,'' Re wrote.

He expressed support for the bishops' efforts, but said he was concerned about unspecified aspects of the plan.

''The application of the policies adopted at the plenary assembly in Dallas can be the source of confusion and ambiguity, because the `Norms' and `Charter' contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church,'' he wrote, referring to the Code of Canon Law. ''Moreover, the experience of the last few months has shown that the terminology of these documents is at times vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret.''

At a press conference in Rome, Gregory - bishop of Belleville, Ill. - said the Vatican's concerns include the policy's broad definition of sexual abuse, its assignment of some duties to lay review boards, and its procedures for ousting abusive priests.

The Dallas policy defines sexual abuse quite broadly, as ''contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult.'' Some critics have been concerned that those interactions do not need to be physical. In Dallas, a bishop suggested that the definition could include a priest who watches pornography with a minor.

The lay boards envisioned by the Dallas policy are supposed to assess allegations against priests and then make recommendations to bishops about what to do about those priests. Critics are concerned that the boards might take away some of the responsibility of bishops for the assignment of priests.

But the most problematic area appears to be the issue of what to do with priests who abuse children.

The Dallas policy requires that, regardless of when the abuse occurred, the guilty priest be permanently removed from ministry and barred from celebrating Mass publicly, from wearing clerical garb, or presenting himself publicly as a priest.

A variety of objections have been raised to this approach by critics who suggest that it fails to differentiate between acts of abuse of varying severity and frequency and that it denies priests their rights under canon law to a lengthy and cumbersome legal process before being suspended from the priesthood.

Nonetheless, Gregory insisted that the Vatican and the American bishops are in basic agreement, and he downplayed the significance of the policy differences.

''The officials of the Roman Curia who have been involved with me in discussions on this matter, particularly this week, have shown great pastoral care in their sensitivity to the pain caused to victims, their commitment to the need to protect society from perpetrators of abuse, their regard for the respect that needs to be shown for the rights of the accused, and their pain at the anguish caused to faithful Catholics by this sinful and criminal conduct,'' he said.

Several bishops, including Law, said yesterday that they will continue to act as they have for the last several months, removing guilty priests and setting up lay boards to review complaints.

McCarrick offered an unfailingly positive assessment of yesterday's development.

''The letter is very, very positive: It says we're on the right track,'' he said of the Vatican letter. ''This is not a rejection at all. We just need to smooth over the edges.''

McCarrick said he does not expect bishops to change what they have been doing since Dallas.

''We can continue to do what we have been doing,'' he said. ''I don't think it affects our procedures at all.''

Under church law, many of the rules the bishops approved in Dallas for responding to abuse allegations require the approval of the Vatican to become binding. But Gregory has made it clear that he expects bishops to comply with the policies on a voluntary basis.

And both the Vatican and the US bishops signaled yesterday that they expect the Vatican to grant its approval, called in Latin a recognitio, after changing the parts of the policy questioned by Rome.

For now, however, the policy appears to be essentially voluntary for bishops, as it has been since June.

''It creates confusion, because the bishops don't have to comply, so some will follow Dallas, and others won't, and it creates confusion about what's going to happen when appeals from the removed priests get to Rome,'' said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper.

Allen pointed out that priests are permitted, under canon law, to appeal removal from ministry to the Vatican and that many have done so since June.

It is not yet clear how the Vatican plans to handle the many appeals. The American bishops have suggested that there should be an expedited process for removing priests from ministry, but have not yet made specific proposals.

''From the Vatican's point of view,'' Allen said, ''this is about restoring balance between swift justice and due process.''

''But if you're talking about the definition of a crime and the procedures to be followed with the accused, these are not minor details. This is a significant course correction.''

The Vatican action was defended by William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who in the past has been sharply critical of the bishops' handling of clergy sexual abuse. Donohue said the Vatican action should be seen as a routine fine-tuning of a complex document.

''What the Vatican is insisting upon, quite rightfully so, is the need to clarify that which is currently ambiguous,'' he said. ''For example, the definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas charter is incredibly elastic and subjective. Similarly, respect for the due-process rights of priests must be further refined; this would include respect for a statute of limitations. And so on. There is nothing exceptional about any of this.''

But groups representing victims and other Catholic laypeople were irate.

''American bishops may try to spin this and minimize what the Vatican has done, but make no mistake about it: Rome's bureaucrats have rejected the weak measures bishops adopted in Dallas, and our children are at risk as a result,'' said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

''We don't need another panel, committee, or study,'' said Blaine, who is herself a victim of abuse by a priest. ''Church leaders have `studied' this issue for decades. We need moral courage, not study.''

But the Rev. Thomas J. Reese - editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly - cautioned against overdramatizing the impact of the Vatican response.

''The Vatican response was not surprising ... [and] Re's letter should not be read as a Vatican rejection of the charter, at least not yet,'' Reese said.

''If the due process questions are resolved satisfactorily, the charter will be better for it, if it can protect both children and innocent priests,'' he said. ''The fact that the Vatican committed itself to resolving these issues before the November meeting of the US bishops shows that it understands the critical nature of the problem.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
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