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CURRENT ISSUE:  July 4, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 13Oakland, CA

U.S. bishops renew sex abuse policies

CHICAGO—The nation’s Catholic bishops voted June 17 to renew policies to combat clergy sexual abuse, maintaining a three-year “zero tolerance” pledge to root out abusive priests.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a revised package of policies that removes from ministry any predatory priest who is found guilty of “a single act of sexual abuse of a minor.”

The original policies, which were adopted in Dallas in 2002 after the scandal erupted in Boston, expired earlier this year. The new policies will remain in effect until 2010 after they are approved by the Vatican.
“The damage caused by sexual abuse of minors is devastating and long-lasting,” the new charter says. “We apologize to them for the grave harm that has been inflicted on them, and we offer our help for the future.”

While the bishops kept most of the policies intact, they made some minor but significant changes that critics say give bishops too much leeway in processing cases, and clamp down on an independent lay review board.

Victims are especially concerned about a note in the margins of the policies that said “many, perhaps a majority” of bishops would prefer to ditch the “zero tolerance” pledge. The report said the policy will hold “for now,” but left the door open for eventually dropping it.

The bishops scrapped a detailed definition of sexual abuse and replaced it with a more general one banning violations of the Sixth Commandment, which prohibits sexual contact outside marriage.

In addition, the new rules say bishops “may” apply to waive an internal statute of limitations on older cases, but do not require it.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said both changes allow bishops too much discretion in prosecuting abuse cases.

“This was never a tough, binding national policy,” she said. “It’s even less of one today.”

The bishops also tightened control over a lay review board, which is charged with monitoring the bishops’ policies and progress. Some former board members and victims’ advocates worry the board will cease to have an independent—and sometimes critical—voice in the Church.

Church leaders, however, maintain that neither the commitment to the board nor their promise to protect children has changed, and insist they have made progress in purging predators from the priesthood.

“The light is at the end of the tunnel,” said Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops’ sexual abuse committee. “Although with sin and brokenness, there is never an end. We must always be vigilant.”

Responding to concern by some priests that an accusation of abuse was tantamount to a guilty verdict, the bishops inserted language that says accused priests enjoy “the presumption of innocence.”
Some bishops, citing those same concerns, said the policies remain flawed. Retired Bishop Edward Hughes of Metuchen, N.J., said the Church will make little progress until rank-and-file priests feel their due-process rights are preserved.

“We will have less protection (of children), not more, unless we get their cooperation,” he said.

In related business, the bishops also approved $1 million to fund a multiyear study of the “causes and context” of the abuse crisis. The bishops are currently soliciting research bids, and the total cost of the study could reach as high as $4 million.

Despite some grumbling from bishops that the church cannot afford the study, other bishops said the Church must maintain its promise to help society understand the root causes of pedophilia and sex abuse.
“I am convinced that we must leave this meeting with a clear, clear message that we continue to be concerned about the protection and safety of children,” said Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland.

In another related move, the bishops renewed a short statement in which they promise to hold one another accountable. Lay critics say bishops who transferred known abusers from parish to parish have not been disciplined.

“Once again, we wish to recognize our role in the suffering this has caused to the victims, their families and to all members of the Church, and we humbly apologize for this harm,” the two-page statement said.

And in separate action, the bishops approved new guidelines for the formation of future priests in seminaries. Conservatives have said the large number of gay priests are partly to blame for the scandal, and have urged Church leaders to adopt a blanket-ban on all gay seminarians.

The bishops said they would wait for the Vatican to release an anticipated binding document on homosexuality in the priesthood. “With regard to the admission of candidates with same-sex experiences and/or inclinations, the guidelines provided by the Holy See must be followed,” the bishops said.

The bishops said any evidence that a would-be priest had abused a minor would permanently disqualify him from the seminary and the priesthood.

And, in a rule that applies to both homosexuals and heterosexuals, the bishops said would-be priests must practice celibacy for at least two years before they are eligible to enter the seminary.

In an unrelated action, the bishops voted to retain 10 familiar words in the Mass—“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” But the phrase could eventually disappear if the Vatican insists it be eliminated because it does not speak of the congregation’s participation in the Mass.

The line comes after the priest consecrates the bread and wine and tells worshippers, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.”

The line, which can be found throughout Christian history, was added to the English-language Mass in the late 1960s. It is also used in Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist worship.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, St. Paul-Minneapolis. Chairman of the bishops’ sexual abuse committee.


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