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Vatican Revisions Ease Rule on Reporting Abuse

The Catholic Church no longer requires leaders to disclose 'any' sexual wrongdoing, which could open a loophole in 18 states.

November 05, 2002|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Roman Catholic priests in more than a third of the states could have significant new leeway on whether to tell authorities about priests suspected of molesting minors under a revised sex abuse prevention policy negotiated last week between U.S. bishops and the Vatican.

Church officials on Monday released the full text of the revised policy, which shows that a potentially significant loophole was added to a section on reporting priests to civil authorities.

Under the abuse policy approved in June by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, church leaders would have been required to report "any" case of sexual abuse to government officials. But under the latest revisions, bishops would be required to comply only with "applicable civil laws" on reporting.

Thirty-two states, including California, require clergy either explicitly or implicitly to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect. But 18 states have no such reporting requirement, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Church officials on Monday said the change would have little or no practical effect on the commitment of bishops to report sexual abuse, but news of the change brought new criticism from advocates for victims of sexual abuse.

"In June they promised to report 'any' allegation to police. Now they are only promising to 'comply with' civil laws. This is a huge and shameful retreat from doing what any responsible party should do to doing what is only required by law," said Mark Serrano of Leesburg, Va., a spokesman for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"We've gone from a clear set of common-sense rules back to a complicated murky set of 'suggestions,' in which bishops have more discretion and laypeople have less voice," Serrano said.

At least some bishops may wish to take advantage of whatever leeway the rules allow. During their debate in Dallas over the policy, several objected to reporting priests for offenses that happened many years ago.

"When we do this, we rat out our priests, and I'm not in favor of that," Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., said during the debate. The church should investigate allegations of sexual abuse itself before informing civil authorities, he argued.

Bishop John T. Steinbock of Fresno was among several bishops who said he worried about having to report wild accusations "from some crazy person, which we all have in our dioceses."

The majority of bishops, however, said at the time that mandatory reporting of all cases of sexual abuse of minors was needed to restore parishioners' confidence in the church.

In another change, the revisions also say the local sexual abuse review boards that were established in each diocese by the Dallas policy are to function "as a confidential consultative body" to the bishop.

The revisions also strike down a Dallas provision requiring those review boards to report the results of their investigations -- known as an "assessment" -- to the alleged victims and accused clergy.

After the bishops approved the original policy, the Vatican objected to what it said were abridgements of the due process rights of accused priests, an overly broad definition of sexual abuse and a lack of clarity in the role of the lay-dominated review boards.

A joint eight-member commission, made up of four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials, hammered out the revisions last week in Vatican City. The revisions are scheduled to be voted on next week when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington.

As word leaked out last week about the revisions, most attention was focused on provisions that required a church tribunal to decide whether a priest or deacon had been guilty of sexually abusing a minor.

There also was controversy over a revision that, in effect, struck down the Dallas plan's "zero tolerance" policy of sexual abuse--"past, present or future." The revisions said the church's 10-year statute of limitations would continue to apply, although it said bishops could ask for a waiver.

But until the full details were released Monday, little was said about reporting requirements.

Father Arthur Espelage, a canon lawyer and executive coordinator for the Canon Law Society of America, said he believes that the changes would have no effect on the willingness of bishops to report abuse.

"When the civil law requires you have to report, there's no problem. When the civil law does not require reporting, then a bishop can create his own particular ecclesiastical law for his diocese which requires reporting," Espelage said.

In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Monday that the change in wording will not affect California, because it has a reporting law, or his own policy, which is to report all cases "past, present or future."

"For all practical purposes it makes no difference to us," he said.

But Mahony said he had not thought about the effect in states with no clergy reporting requirements. He said he would raise the issue when the bishops meet in Washington.

Mahony said the revisions involving local review boards would also have no practical effect in Los Angeles because of the way the board here operates.

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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