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U.S. Bishops Adopt Policy on Sex Abuse

Catholicism: Church leaders seek to remove all offenders, but they draw fire for allowing them to technically stay in the priesthood.

June 15, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Under intense pressure to stem a spiraling sex abuse crisis, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Friday overwhelmingly approved their first national policy to oust all priests from public ministry who molest minors.

In passing the policy by a vote of 239-13, the bishops closed a controversial loophole that would have allowed perpetrators of a past single offense to eventually return to a restricted ministry after treatment.

But in a new wrinkle that outraged victims' advocates, the bishops left the door open for offenders to remain as priests with harsh restrictions that would ban them from wearing clerical garb, celebrating Mass and publicly presenting themselves as priests.

The new policy contains no direct measure to penalize bishops who continue to reassign, rather than remove, errant priests, a demand that surfaced from victims and other dissident Catholics this week. The bishops did pass a separate motion to direct a conference committee to explore the issue of accountability.

Despite the imperfections, several bishops hailed the new policy as an unprecedented document to protect children from sex abuse and seek healing and reconciliation with victims and their families.

Among other things, the document morally obliges bishops in all 194 U.S. dioceses to report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities, requires the expulsion of offenders from public ministry and sets up a national lay review board. The board will publicly name in annual reports those dioceses that fail to comply with the policy--a sharp contrast from the tradition of clerical secrecy.

The vote came after six months of ceaseless headlines that have chronicled a church pattern of protecting abusive priests. About 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests have resigned or been suspended during that time. Four bishops have resigned, two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse and another priest was shot.

"Today the [bishops] took a profound step in a long and sorrowful journey for the entire church," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The charter

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the new policy terribly disappointing because it did not eject all perpetrators from the priesthood or seek to remove derelict bishops.

But the newly appointed chairman of the national lay review board, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, moved swiftly to invite victims' advocates to serve as board members. At least one of them, Mark Serrano of the survivors network group, has agreed.

Gregory and others said the uniform national policy was needed to prevent dioceses from ignoring guidelines on sex abuse that the bishops passed a decade ago. The lack of compliance led to tragic cases of predatory priests who were kept in ministry only to violate other victims, fueling widespread anger and an outcry for tough and sweeping reforms.

What was billed as one of the most important debates in the history of the bishops conference began with a ringing declaration from Archbishop Harry Flynn, chairman of the committee on sexual abuse that drafted the policy.

"This is a defining moment for us ... to root out a cancer in our church," Flynn told his fellow bishops.

"The bottom line remains, and that is: No priest or deacon who has abused a minor can remain in ministry. As good pastors attentive to those we serve, we can do no less."

However, the daylong debate revealed deep concerns and palpable tensions among bishops, who were caught between public expectations of reform and trepidation over subjecting priests to unjust actions.

Nevertheless, provisions to soften the policy were turned back one after another as bishops repeatedly spoke out against what several of them termed wiggle room.

In one exchange, some asked for amendments to require them to report to civil authorities only credible allegations, saying they did not want to stain the reputation of priests with false accusations. Others worried that the provision would break the bond of trust between priests and bishops.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, among others, countered that the public had criticized bishops for trying to handle the problem within the church--and in the process had delayed justice. (Mahony has been criticized for transferring a priest to several parishes in the Los Angeles Archdiocese after the priest told him in the mid-1980s that he had molested young boys.)

Noting that he had been falsely accused twice of molestation, Mahony said immediate intervention by law enforcement had cleared him swiftly and publicly.

"I welcome police intervention.... It helps us greatly," Mahony said. The new national policy will not greatly affect Los Angeles, because the archdiocese already requires the dismissal of any priest found to have sexually abused minors.

After five hours of debate and earlier consideration of 107 pages of proposed amendments, the bishops adopted the policy.

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