Bishops promise parishioners bigger role

Sunday, June 16, 2002

DALLAS -- American bishops left their landmark meeting for home Saturday with a clerical sex abuse policy that gives rank-and-file Roman Catholics an unprecedented role in policing the church.

The plan has its critics, including those who had called for the automatic ouster of abusive priests and wanted lay people to have an even greater say in church decisions.

But as the bishops wrapped up their tumultuous summit with private prayers, they could point to a 3,500-word document that creates a national board to monitor their compliance with the policy, plus advisory panels dominated by lay people in each diocese to assess abuse claims.

The policy, approved overwhelmingly Friday, was forced by the worst moral scandal in the history of the U.S. church. Scores of victims have come forward with accusations of abuse at the hands of priests and striking indifference from church leaders. At least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended, and the scandal prompted an extraordinary summit between U.S. cardinals and the pope.

The sex abuse policy, titled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," is unprecedented in scope and ambition.

The attention-getter was the plan for dealing with priests who molest youths, past or future. Proven miscreants will not be formally removed from the priesthood -- though some could be -- but they will never again be active in church work.

"No free pass. No second chances," said the prelates president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory. "If you abuse a child, you will be stripped of your ministry, forever."

The prelates also are obliged to reach out to their faithful.

Bishops must work within their communities to establish "safe environment" programs that protect children and they will be advised by review boards comprised primarily of lay parishioners. Confidentiality agreements are mostly barred.

Critics say that's not enough.

The review boards "must have more power than just administrative services," said Michael Emerton of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group that claims 14,000 members nationwide.

He also said abusers will "continue to be taken care of by Sunday collection plate collections" and complained the policy doesn't hold bishops accountable for "moving known sexual abusers from parish to parish."

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Catholic and a former federal prosecutor, was chosen by Gregory to chair a new National Review Board that will monitor bishops' compliance with the policy and oversee a broad investigation on how the church got to this sorry state.

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