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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Vatican intervention


THE VATICAN has decided to change, and perhaps soften, the tough policy against child abuse adopted by the US Catholic bishops in Dallas last June. As the four officials from Rome join four Americans bishops in making the changes, their first priority should be the protection of children, not the coverup of clerical misdeeds.

The Vatican was vague about its problems with the Dallas document, but a statement by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested that they fell into three areas:

The definition of sexual abuse.

The removal from ministry of a priest accused of abuse and the bishops' insistence on zero tolerance.

The role of independent review boards to be established in each diocese.

The US bishops decided that ''sexual abuse [includes] contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult.'' That is reasonable, and the Vatican should not choose more limited wording.

The Vatican is worried about due process for accused priests and may think US bishops violated a statue of limitations that exists in canon law when they insisted that any case of abuse, no matter how long ago, will be grounds for a dismissal from active ministry.

Protection of priests' rights is a matter of legitimate concern and would benefit from more study. But the Vatican should not insist that those with abuse in their past get a second chance. US bishops have such a sorry record on abuse that they need this tough measure to reassure the laity.

Of the three reservations, the most troubling involves review boards. It is essential that, as the bishops decided, each board include a majority of lay Catholics and that members serve fixed terms. Boards need to be independent of a bishop's control to discourage future coverups of abuse. The Vatican should do nothing to curtail their autonomy.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law said Friday that the Vatican intervention was nothing to worry about. The cardinal said the tough policy he implemented in January ''was fully within the norms of canon law.''

He declined a challenge from Attorney General Thomas Reilly to implement the tougher recommendations unveiled by a special archdiocesan commission this month. Law will wait until December to announce the ones he will adopt. Gregory said any changes negotiated by the Vatican will be ready for consideration by all US bishops next month. Law will be able to adjust his response to the special commission accordingly.

However, much of the responsibility for this scandal falls on his shoulders. No matter what the bishops and the Vatican decide, Law has an obligation to make sure that archdiocesan policy is unequivocally on the side of child protection.

This story ran on page D10 of the Boston Globe on 10/20/2002.
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