Bishops' plan for abusers in trouble

Sunday, September 15, 2002

The reforms were meant to restore trust and end a crisis.

But three months after America's Roman Catholic bishops promised to aggressively discipline priests who molest children, resistance to their policy is intensifying and the plan could be coming undone.

Parishioners are rallying behind accused priests. Clergy are suing alleged victims and complaining to the Vatican. Experts in church law are questioning whether the plan violates priests' rights.

Leaders of religious orders have accused the bishops of ignoring Catholic teaching on redemption and are allowing some abusers to continue their church work away from children.

"It is unraveling," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian from the University of Notre Dame.

"I don't think anybody knows where we're headed," said Philip Lawler, a conservative and editor of Catholic World Report magazine.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops insists its members are on the right track. Officials point to dioceses nationwide that have expanded their lay review boards, hired people to help victims and suspended accused priests.

At least 300 of the nation's 46,000 clergy have either resigned or been taken off duty over abuse claims since the molestation crisis erupted in January with the case of one predator in the Archdiocese of Boston. Under the bishops' policy, guilty priests are to be removed from all church work -- from saying Mass to teaching school to balancing the parish's books -- and in some cases from the priesthood altogether.

"If anything, the majority of the signs have been of a readiness to put the charter into effect," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the bishops' conference.

However some bishops have delayed implementing parts of the plan, such as ousting abusers from the priesthood, until the Vatican weighs in, and several analysts predict the Holy See will reject it. Rome's approval is needed to make the policy binding on U.S. dioceses, otherwise the policy approved June 14 in Dallas is simply a gentlemen's agreement.

The bishops have said that even if the plan is voluntary, no church leader would dare ignore it in this climate of public anger over mishandled abuse cases. The prelates formed a lay committee, the National Review Board, to evaluate whether dioceses were in compliance.

Yet the man the bishops recruited to head the panel, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, is already under attack from within the church, even before he holds his second meeting with the commission Monday.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: