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U.S. Bishops' Leader to Discuss New Sex Abuse Policy With Vatican

October 12, 2002|From Times Wire Reports

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is withholding its response to the U.S. bishops' new "zero tolerance" rules on pedophilia in order to discuss its strong reservations with Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to Vatican sources.

The sources said that Gregory, expected in Rome today on a regularly scheduled visit, will meet next week with officials of the five Vatican agencies directly concerned: the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishops, Clergy, Institutions of Religious Life and Legislative Texts.

The sources said that although Vatican officials support prompt action against priests who commit sexual offenses, they also want to ensure that accused clergy are guaranteed their fundamental rights under both U.S. and church law to the presumption of innocence until proved guilty and due process of law.

It appears, however, that the officials are increasingly inclined to grant the bishops' plan a two-year trial period. The Vatican is reluctant to take any action that might undermine the bishops' credibility at a time when they are under attack for failing to crack down on abusive priests.

The Vatican presumably would monitor the situation for two years and perhaps suggest modifications before deciding whether to give the policy "recognito," or final approval.

Under the bishops' new rules, dioceses would be required to remove accused priests from their ministries and, in some cases, from the priesthood. Canon lawyers have questioned whether this might violate the clerics' rights.

About 300 priests have been suspended since the scandals erupted in January with the case of a cleric in the Boston Archdiocese who was transferred instead of disciplined and continued to offend in each new parish. Several of the suspended priests have asked the Vatican to reinstate them.

In an article in the Oct. 7 issue of the Jesuit weekly America, Father John P. Beal, associate professor of canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, warned that the definition of sexual abuse in the rules is "exceedingly broad and vague."

Beal also criticized the process under which a bishop suspends a priest when an accusation against him is found to be "credible" and leaves it to the accused priest to prove himself innocent.

Lay review boards, which play an increasingly important role in the process, are giving more weight to their responsibility to protect children than to their duty to "priests about whose guilt there is reasonable doubt," Beal wrote.

"After decades of dismissing or discounting complaints of sexual abuse against priests, authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical, are now inclined to give implicit credence to accusations against priests and to dismiss their denials rather summarily," he said.

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