U.S. Catholic bishops meet again on sex abuse crisis

Sunday, November 10, 2002

America's Roman Catholic bishops meet in Washington this week, hoping to put nearly a year of sex scandals behind them by approving a revised policy to get rid of molesters in the clergy. Abuse victims worry that the plan, which seems likely to pass, retreats from church leaders' earlier promises.

The gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a regularly scheduled biannual meeting, but like the bishops' June session in Dallas, the dominant issue will be the sex abuse crisis that has put the church in the national spotlight.

The week's major task is to vote on a rewrite of the reform rules that the bishops issued in Dallas. The proposal sets up a process for trying priests accused of abuse and removing those found guilty from church work -- sometimes from the priesthood itself.

If all that sounds familiar, it should; the plan that the bishops crafted in Dallas aimed to do the same thing.

However, the Vatican demanded changes before it would sign off on the policy. The Holy See was mainly interested in safeguarding the rights of accused priests.

A joint U.S.-Vatican commission negotiated a new version in Rome that spells out in greater detail the process for investigating abuse claims and conducting trials before church tribunals.

But some critics say the rewrite, released last week, is confusing. The Linkup, a victims' lobby, contends watered-down points in the plan "are unacceptable to survivors, and should be unacceptable to U.S. lawmakers and American Catholics."

One question heading into the meeting is whether the U.S. bishops will dare make any changes to the wording agreed upon by the American-Vatican team.

Once the bishops pass the revised policy, it must again undergo a final review in Rome before it becomes binding on all U.S. bishops.

In a year when, by the latest The Associated Press count, at least 325 of the 46,000 American priests have been removed or resigned from their posts because of abuse allegations, some wonder whether the bishops can afford to change their policy yet again.

Since the scandal erupted, one in five devout Roman Catholics has stopped donating money to a diocese, according to a new survey reported Saturday in The New York Times. In addition, 64 percent of the 656 churchgoing Catholics surveyed for the Gallup poll felt the nation's bishops had done a "bad job" of handling the crisis. The survey was commissioned by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, an association of Catholic philanthropists.

The Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine, a veteran bishop-watcher, believes the rules "need to be clarified" and returned to Rome.

For example, the Vatican insisted on a standard statute of limitations in church cases around the world (victims cannot file complaints after age 28). Reese says experts in church law are unsure whether bishops can remove all past abusers, including those whose misdeeds have recently come to light but allegedly occurred years or decades ago.

Another change made in Rome means bishops wouldn't be required to refer all abuse allegations to police unless that's what secular law mandates. Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, one of the U.S. negotiators, said this was a mistake and that the bishops need to discuss the problem.

Also, the role of local review boards -- previously directed to monitor their diocese's handling of abuse cases -- has become ambiguous. In the latest version, the boards have no mandatory functions.

A further problem not spelled out in the parts of the policy that will become church law (called "norms") is how the tribunals will be set up. Existing church tribunals have expertise only in annulments, not crimes, and would be swamped unless special abuse courts are established.

There will doubtless be other abuse-related topics, such as the $1 million budget for implementing reforms.

One special committee will address the touchy topic of how to deal with the bishops' own past responsibility for the crisis and how to make them more accountable. Another will consider whether to summon an extraordinary "plenary council" of the hierarchy and other church delegates, the first since 1884, to mull the problems and prospects of the American church.

In other matters, the Washington meeting will debate a statement deploring 30 years of legalized abortion in America. It's possible the bishops would issue a last-minute resolution along the lines of the September stand against pre-emptive U.S. military action against Iraq from the bishops' president, Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill.

Also on the docket: declarations on poverty in the United States and worldwide, on abuse of women, on immigration and on the church's strategy for reaching out to Hispanics.

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