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U.S. Bishops Renew Rules to Prevent Sex Abuse

Besides overwhelmingly voting for the policy of zero tolerance, the conference commits $1 million toward a study of such crimes.

June 18, 2005|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — With little debate, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops Friday extended by five years safeguards to protect children and youth from sexual predators within the church.

The decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting here for their spring session, reaffirmed the U.S. church's "zero tolerance" policy hammered out at the height of the sexual abuse scandal in 2002.

Under the rules, a credible accusation of sexual abuse against any priest or deacon requires his removal from public ministry. In cases where the church confirms an allegation, the removal becomes permanent and the accused can be stripped of ordinations.

Churches also must inform civil authorities of such accusations.

In a secret written ballot, the bishops voted 228-4 to renew and revise the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and 229-3 for rules, known as norms, to carry it out. The conference also committed to spending an initial $1 million to finance a $3-million to $5-million study on the causes and contexts of child sexual abuse, which the bishops hoped would also help society in general.

Church leaders said their action showed that progress had been made against sex abuse. "The light is at the end of the tunnel, although with sin and brokenness there is never an end," Minneapolis and St. Paul Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, told reporters after the vote.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, commended the bishops' actions of the last two years that have resulted in the removal of 700 to 900 priests credibly accused of child abuse. But he attributed the progress largely to victims' willingness to speak out, not to church vigilance.

"In almost every sphere there's been improvement, but sometimes in spite of the hierarchy, not because of it," Clohessy said. "I believe that kids are more apt to disclose, parents are more apt to believe, families are more apt to contact police, police are more inclined to investigate, prosecutors are more inclined to bring charges, and Catholics are more skeptical about claims that their bishops make," he said.

Clohessy said he was disappointed that some bishops continued, in courthouses and state legislatures, to "aggressively fight legislative reform and aggressively keep secrets hidden."

Some critics have expressed concern about the independence of a national review board that the bishops created three years ago to oversee compliance with the rules against sexual abuse. The revisions, critics note, emphasize that clergy may join what has been an all-lay board.

The bishops denied any backsliding or any attempt to evade scrutiny.

"We have not weakened the charter. We have not weakened the norms. If you seek a monument, look about you," Flynn said.

Despite some bishops' discontent with what they saw as an overly harsh policy, most at the two-day conference indicated they were in no mood to relax rules.

Only one bishop rose to question the policy. "I'm not advocating that we allow convicted offenders back into the active ministry at this time," Bishop Edward T. Hughes, the retired bishop of Metuchen, N.J., said. But he said some priests might have a single allegation against them followed by many years of unblemished records; those men might serve the church in a nonpublic function, such as administration or a cloistered life of prayer, he suggested.

Hughes also said he feared the rules might be making innocent clergy fearful of any contact with parishioners.

"Many of our priests are still anxious and uncertain, and still believe an accusation is tantamount to being judged guilty," he said.

The issue of public perception came up during the debate over committing $1 million to pay for a study by outside experts into the causes and context of sexual abuse. Some bishops wondered whether it was wise to commit the money until the details were worked out.

But Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton urged approval of the funding. "If we are going to restore our credibility -- and I believe we are making progress -- we have to indicate we are going to do this study," he said.

In also backing the spending, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said: "We've been through an extraordinarily difficult time in the life and history of the church." An in-depth study of the causes of sexual abuse would help the church and society in general, he said.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese faces 544 sexual abuse claims that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to settle. Lawyers for the archdiocese and the plaintiffs have tried at length to settle out of court. In the process, the sides have wrangled over whether and how secret church files should be disclosed. Mahony has turned the documents over to a judge but opposes wide release, contending that would violate confidentiality between a bishop and priests.

In other business, the bishops rejected a proposal to end the use of a popular acclamation during Mass: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." Supporters of the proposal said that under new Vatican guidelines for the upcoming English translation of the Latin Mass, the acclamation would not be allowed.

Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., chairman of the panel that made the proposal, said the words should be dropped because they actually came from an English-language hymn, not the Latin Mass.

But most bishops said such a change would upset many parishioners. "I really believe the pastoral consideration has to prevail," Cardinal Edward Egan of New York said. "We've had so much change, there's a sense of instability. There is a sense of no connection with the past. We have to stop this."

They did. The conference sent the proposal to an uncertain fate, back to committee.

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