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Revised Abuse Policy Unveiled by Bishop

Accord with Vatican calls for tribunals to hear cases. A statute of limitations is included.

November 02, 2002|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

An agreement reached by Vatican officials and a team of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops earlier this week would revise the American zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse by reimposing a statute of limitations on some cases and giving church tribunals the final word on whether accused priests should be removed from the ministry.

Leading U.S. bishops on Friday defended the changes, which were hammered out in two days of negotiations in Vatican City between four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials.

The negotiations began after the Vatican declined to approve the policy adopted by U.S. bishops in June at a meeting in Dallas.

The revised set of rules -- which church officials call norms -- "substantially confirms" the decisions made by the U.S. bishops when they adopted their zero-tolerance policy, formally known as the Charter to Protect Children and Young People, said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The bishops, bolstered by these norms, are absolutely committed that any priest who has abused a young person will not remain in ministry -- indeed, will be permanently removed from ministry," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. "That means past, present or future."

Lori, one of the four American negotiators, laid out the details of the agreement in interviews with The Times and other news organizations.

But advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests were dismayed. The changes are a "radical departure" from the earlier policy and will discourage victims from stepping forward, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Copies of the revised rules are being sent to U.S. bishops over the weekend. The bishops are scheduled to vote on them at their next regular meeting, in Washington from Nov. 11 to 14.

The central difference between the original policy and the revisions is that church proceedings against accused priests would now go to church tribunals.

Under the original policy, if sexual abuse was admitted or proved to the local bishop's satisfaction, the offending priest was to be automatically removed from ministry by his bishop using administrative procedures.

But Vatican officials insisted that did not provide enough protection under canon law for accused priests before bishops could remove them from ministry.

Moving the cases to church tribunals means they must follow canon law, which provides for a statute of limitations. The time limit in canon law varies but would bar consideration of any case that occurred before November 1983 and many other cases from the 1980s and 1990s.

Administrative proceedings face no such limit, meaning that bishops could remove a priest no matter how long ago an act of abuse took place. Many of the cases that have surfaced this year in the United States involve decades-old allegations.

Under the agreement, however, the Vatican will consider allowing the prosecution of older cases if a U.S. bishop makes a request.

The policy would still require bishops to follow any civil or criminal law that requires reporting accused abusive priests to civil authorities, and would not interfere with prosecution by secular officials.

Under the proposal, when a bishop receives an allegation that a priest or deacon has sexually abused a minor, he must immediately begin a preliminary investigation. The accused cleric will be temporarily taken out of service administratively.

If there is sufficient evidence, the case would be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in the Vatican, now headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Lori said the threshold for forwarding the matter to Rome is low. Canon law merely says to do this "if it [the accusation] at least seems true." The Vatican congregation will normally send the case back to the local bishop to adjudicate through a tribunal, Lori said. But in some special cases, such as when a priest has served in more than one diocese, he said, the Vatican may decide to try the case itself.

If Ratzinger's panel decides not to allow a trial -- either for lack of evidence or because the case is too old -- "that is not the end of the ballgame," Lori said.

"If the bishop judges the priest or deacon is a danger to young people, he still has executive power of governance and can take measures to make sure that cleric is not returned to ministry," Lori said. The norms require the bishop to take such steps. "It isn't optional," Lori said.

The priest would still be considered a member of the priesthood but would not be allowed to serve in any form of ministry.

"We bishops wanted to be bound," Lori said. "We wanted to say to our people that our commitment is not only a promise, it's something to which we are bound by the law of the church."

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