DALLAS -- Hoping to finally heal their fractured church, America's Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a policy Friday that allows them to keep sexually abusive clergy in the priesthood but bar them from face-to-face contact with parishioners.
The policy, put together because of a sex scandal that has shaken the church to its core and forced a summit with the pope, drew sharp criticism from victims. Many had called for a zero tolerance policy that would oust all abusers.
The plan is intended to be binding on 178 mainstream dioceses across the country. It represents a major shift from the voluntary discipline guidelines the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has relied on for years, though it needs Vatican approval to become binding.
The prelates stood and applauded after they approved the policy on a 239-13 vote by secret ballot. It was the climactic moment of an extraordinary meeting that has been filled with wrenching accounts of abuse from victims and solemn expressions of remorse from church leaders.
"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president. He also apologized for "our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror" of sexual abuse.
Under the plan, abusers past and future will technically remain priests, but they will be prohibited from any work connected to the church -- from teaching in parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen.
"He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb or to present himself publicly as a priest," says the policy, which covers 3,500 words in 17 separate articles.
Abusers still can be defrocked -- removed from the priesthood -- but it would be up to the presiding bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people.
The policy says some abusers may not be dismissed from clerical work because their "advanced age or infirmity," though they would largely lead "a life of prayer and penance."
The church would continue to financially support priests removed from ministry. Bishop Joseph Galante said he believed the priest could be sent to a "house of confinement," the church's version of a halfway house for clergy who require strict monitoring. Galante said there were several in the United States.
The plan will be reviewed in two years.
The swift change in church policy comes after months of unrelenting scandal in which at least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct claims. Victim after victim has come forward with tortured stories of abuse at the hands of priests, and accusations that church leaders merely shuffled molesters between parishes.
Even as the bishops cheered inside a Dallas hotel, a Nebraska jury was awarding $800,000 to a woman and her son, a former altar boy who was abused by a priest in the 1990s.
No zero tolerance
Before the summit, there was widespread speculation that the bishops would adopt a zero tolerance policy under which abusive priests would be automatically defrocked. That idea was dropped during closed-door debate.
Bishops said it seemed unfair to remove elderly men from the priesthood toward the end of their lives for allegations that in some cases date back decades.
"The majority of men these men are in their 60s, 70s and 80s," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said.
Salt Lake City Bishop George Niederauer, a member of the draft policy committee, said he felt the plan would protect children. But victims were outraged and about a dozen spilled into the hotel lobby to express their anger.
"This is akin to telling a street killer in the city 'We're sending you to the country,"' said Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They will find children to prey upon."
Sheila Daley, a member of the liberal Catholic group Call to Action, called the policy "weak" and "inadequate."
"As long as their perpetrator can use the term 'father' to describe himself, he is potentially going to be able to lure another victim to him," Daley said.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the policy reflected the need to show "Christ-like compassion" to priests.
"We call them our son," he said. "Therefore, we must continue to have that compassion and forgiveness like any parent."