Vatican approves sex abuse plan

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

America's Roman Catholic bishops won Vatican approval Monday for their revised sex abuse policy, requiring every diocese to bar priests who molest children from working in the church.

Vatican authorization makes the plan church law for the United States and, therefore, binding on Catholic officials. Bishops have acknowledged that allowing dioceses to set their own rules often left molesters in parishes and helped create this year's many scandals.

The Holy See's announcement came three days after Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston, removing a central figure from the abuse crisis which began in Law's archdiocese 11 months ago.

"A number of bishops have added to the impact of this scandal by being, too often, negligent in our vigilance," Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Monday. "We turn to the Catholic people for their help in making this a moment of new creation."

The policy attempts to balance the rights of victims and accused clergy in a discipline process separate from civil proceedings.

Bishops have pledged to report all allegations involving children to law enforcement in their communities, even though the church leaders are compelled to only obey local civil law on reporting abuse.

Under the new plan, bishops will conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation claim is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the Vatican will be notified and will likely return the case to the bishop. The accused priest is to be put on leave and then must go before a clerical tribunal to determine his guilt or innocence.

The bishops dealt with the burgeoning crisis in June by approving a policy that would have allowed church leaders to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as they were accused. But Vatican officials expressed concern the approach denied priests due process, and a joint U.S.-Vatican commission revised the plan.

American bishops accepted the changes at their national meeting Nov. 13 and awaited the Holy See's final approval.

Guilty clerics will now be barred from public ministry -- saying Mass, teaching in Catholic schools, wearing a Roman collar -- after a single case of abuse with a minor. Some may also be forced to leave the priesthood.

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