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Bishops to Retain Policy on Abuse

'Zero tolerance' will be enforced in the U.S. pending talks with the Vatican, clerical leaders say. But some opponents may ignore the charter.

October 19, 2002|Larry B. Stammer and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in America said Friday they will continue, at least for now, to enforce their controversial "zero-tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests despite rejection of key provisions by the Vatican.

At a news conference in Vatican City, Bishop Wilton T. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. bishops conference, said the bishops would not back away from enforcement of their policy, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

"Will they stop?" he asked rhetorically. "No." Vatican officials have "not asked the bishops to stop pursuing the charter." The Vatican's statement on the subject "simply says let us sit down and talk together about issues that need to be clarified or modified."

Others were more skeptical.

"I think what will happen is most bishops are going to hold up now and not do very much other than what they've done," predicted Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, the auxiliary bishop of Detroit and one of the church's more liberal bishops.

The minority of bishops who opposed the national policy in June when it was adopted by the bishops at a meeting in Dallas will now probably ignore it, he said. "Once again we'll have a situation throughout the country of a great deal of diversity as to how bishops respond."

"We're now back to square one," said Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Each bishop can decide for himself how to handle abusive priests."

In a letter to the American bishops released on Friday, the Vatican said provisions in the policy dealing with the rights of accused priests and a definition of what constitutes sexual abuse need to be rewritten to conform to the universal church's canon law.

A joint Vatican-U.S. commission will be named with the intention of working out changes in the U.S. policy in time for next month's meeting in Washington of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the letter said.

The Vatican letter, sent by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, said that several provisions in the policy are "a source of confusion and ambiguity" and some of them "are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church."

But Re reaffirmed that the Vatican supports U.S. bishops in their efforts to prevent the sexual abuse of minors, a crime that he called "particularly abhorrent."

Pending the review by the joint commission, which will be made up of four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials, the official position of the U.S. church hierarchy is that bishops are free to continue enforcing the charter.

But that interpretation of the Vatican's position does not appear to be universally shared. Some Vatican officials have privately indicated that some of the American rules conflict with due-process rights guaranteed to priests by universal church law and therefore must be changed.

In Los Angeles, Father Jim Fredericks, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University who has followed issues of canon law, agreed that, at least in some dioceses, enforcement is unlikely to proceed.

"I know for a fact that some bishops since Dallas have complied with the charter as cautiously as they can, knowing that there is a problem with canon law," he said. "I suspect those bishops will take this as a signal that the charter is on hold for the time being."

In the end, the Vatican will have the final word. Without Vatican approval, known as a recognitio, the policy cannot be made binding on all U.S. bishops. Moreover, bishops cannot violate canon law to take action against a priest.

But there are constraints on the Vatican as well. Vatican officials are painfully aware of the depth of the crisis in the U.S., and they made clear Friday that they do not wish to appear obstructionist.

In his letter, Re underscored what he called the Vatican's "full solidarity" with U.S. bishops in their desire to rid the clergy of sexual abusers.

In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony issued a statement pledging continued enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy in the archdiocese, which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, whose archdiocese has been at the center of the scandal, issued a similar promise.

Father Thomas J. Reese, a Vatican expert, agreed that U.S. bishops may continue to carry out the policy until the joint commission says otherwise.

Vatican officials have several specific concerns with the U.S. charter, Gregory told reporters.

One set of concerns goes to the heart of the U.S. charter's zero-tolerance policy.

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