DALLAS — Approving a policy that calls the sexual abuse scandal “a crisis without precedent in our times,” the U.S. bishops voted June 14 to permanently remove from public ministry all priests and deacons for any acts of sexual abuse against minors, with no exceptions.
“From this day forward no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States,” declared Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Under the terms of the bishops' “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” abusive priests can be fired and laicized at the discretion of their local bishop and with Vatican approval. The charter is posted on the conference's Web site at www.usccb.org/bishops/charter.htm.
The charter and the separate legal document outlining the norms that will be submitted for Vatican approval of the charter's dictates and procedures would allow some priest-abusers (primarily those guilty of a single offense in the distant past) to remain diocesan employees, leading secluded lives of solitary prayer and penance. But they would have no ministerial contact with the public, could not present themselves publicly as “priests” and could not be seen in public wearing the collar.
“If he were a policeman, it would be as if they took away his badge, his gun and his uniform and he ain't going to be on the beat anymore,” said Father Thomas Reese, editor in chief of America and a canon lawyer who was impaneled by the conference to explain Church law to the public and the press in Dallas.
Bishops who favored allowing some past abusers to stay on in solitary priest-hood argued that it is not Christ-like nor good for society to put a priest in his 70s or 80s — in response to decades-old abuses in some cases — into the streets with no family or means of support.
The charter, which needed 190 votes for the required two-thirds majority, passed 239-13. It came after extensive testimony from survivors of sexual abuse by priests, whose stories brought dozens of bishops to tears.
“There is a lot of depression among the bishops about what these victims have gone through and how poorly some elements of the Church have been at responding to them,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
The norms would require each U.S. diocese and eparchy (the Eastern-rite equivalent of a diocese) to establish a written policy on sexual abuse of minors (defined as those under 18) by clergy or other church personnel. Each bishop would appoint a review board consisting mostly of laity but including a priest and an expert in the treatment of sexual abuse. The board would be charged with advising its bishop on whether allegations of misconduct appear credible; a separate diocesan review board would examine board recommendations upon request by the bishop.
At the national level, the charter establishes an Office of Child and Youth Protection at the bishops' conference headquarters in Washington, D.C., in order to ensure accountability and to assist in consistent application of policies. After bishops adopted the charter, Bishop Gregory announced the appointment of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a former FBI agent and prosecutor, to head a national review board to govern the oversight agency.
Keating told reporters he was troubled by the way some bishops have handled past sexual abuse cases and said several times that he won't hesitate to pressure for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who has been severely criticized over his handling of two serial priest-pedophiles. Keating also insisted he won't hesitate in seeking resignations of other bishops who mishandle sexual abuse cases.
“I didn't think that's part of his job,” said Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia when asked about Keating's statements. “Whether a bishop resigns is an issue between that bishop and the Holy Father, not a review board.”
The norms are written to encourage abusive priests to resign voluntarily from ministry, saying: “Such a cleric may voluntarily withdraw from ministry. For such clerics, the option of a lifelong regiment of prayer and penance in a controlled environment may also be offered.”
But unlike the norms, the charter doesn't link the opportunity for a personal prayer and penance ministry with voluntary resignation. Rather, it suggests this opportunity pertains solely to abusive priests who are allowed to remain in the priesthood, saying: “If the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has not been applied (e.g., for reasons of advanced age or infirmity), the offender is to lead a life of prayer and penance.”
Although allegations must be deemed “credible” for the permanent removal of a priest, bishops will be required to involve police regardless of credibility. The charter and norms require bishops to contact civil authorities immediately upon receiving allegations of sexual abuse and to cooperate in the police investigation in accordance with the law of the civil jurisdiction.
Cardinal Bevilacqua tried to amend the charter so that bishops would have to contact civil authorities only in response to allegations of sexual abuse deemed “credible” by each bishop. The amendment failed, however, after several bishops expressed concern that it would be seen as a loophole for abuse.
“It's hard to understand why, when someone makes an accusation that is obviously frivolous, it has to be reported,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said. “Once you involve the authorities, it goes into public record and it can ruin the reputation of a perfectly good priest for no reason. The priest has to live with a blemished public record, yet he's completely innocent. The damage to his reputation will be very difficult to counter.”
Several bishops expressed similar concerns.
“In my diocese, we have one woman who regularly gets drunk and calls in accusations about every priest she knows,” said Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb. “She tells stories about priests raping her on the streets, and it's completely unfounded and everyone knows it is.”
Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Fordham University theologian, urged bishops to vote against the charter because of its broad definition of sexual abuse. The charter defines sexual abuse more broadly than civil law, saying it need not involve force, nor genital or physical contact. Rather, says the new charter, sexual abuse results “when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult” in any manner.
“We have the definition so broad we're not depriving men of ministry only for heinous crimes, but for looks and touches and hugs,” Cardinal Dulles argued.
However, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was among the bishops who urged passage of the charter even after criticizing it sharply. Cardinal George called the document “deeply flawed,” but said urgent action was needed. He explained that the sexual abuse scandal resulted from a gradual weakening of the Church caused by a failure of bishops and clergy to boldly enforce Church teachings on sexual morality amid a materialistic culture that devalues Church doctrine.
The abuse policy states that in every case, due process under canon law must be observed before a priest can be removed from ministry, laicized or both. Although the bishops have formally agreed to bind themselves by the policy and voluntarily obey it, the Vatican must approve a set of norms devised by the bishops before the charter becomes “particular law” that would pertain exclusively to the United States.
The Vatican has repeatedly signaled that the norms must fully respect the canonical rights of priests and give full voice to the Church's mission of promoting reconciliation and repentance. In an article published June 10 by The New York Times, Cardinal Dulles suggested that Rome can make more balanced judgments on these issues than the beleaguered U.S. bishops, who remain under intense public and media pressure to implement a highly punitive, “zero-tolerance” policy.
“The bishops are understandably concerned to show that they are taking bold and decisive measures,” Cardinal Dulles said. “But they should take care not to lock the Church into positions that will later prove to be unwise. If they yield too much to the present atmosphere of panic, the Holy See can be relied upon to safeguard the theological and canonical tradition.”
— Cardinal Avery Dulles
Speaking on NBC's “Meet the Press” June 16, Bishop Gregory acknowledged that Vatican officials had questioned whether the proposed norms sufficiently promote reconciliation and the rights of priests.
“It is troubling, but it is not surprising,” he said. “It's not surprising that people who do not live in the United States under a British common law set of legal standards … don't understand all of the realities that we, as Americans, live with, and I'm not surprised that they want to remind us about reconciliation, conversion.”
Bishop Gregory added that he was “as confident as I can be at this time” that Rome would eventually approve the policy. “They have expressed their overwhelming desire to assist us,” he said. “Can I sit here and presume that they will approve it without modification? No. But am I absolutely confident that they are going to work with us? I am.”
Meanwhile, other critics — particularly members of SNAP, the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests — are objecting that the abuse policy set out in Dallas is too lax, not too severe. “The Holy Father himself said no one belongs in the priesthood who would sexually offend a child, so I don't believe the bishops are living up to the standards the Holy Father himself set … when he met with American cardinals in Rome,” said Mark Vincent Serrano, who was abused by a priest from ages 9 to 16.
Though the bulk of the charter establishes reasons and procedures for dismissal of priests from public ministry, the preamble apologizes to victims. And, responding to Pope John Paul II's request in April that the U.S. bishops work toward healing and reconciliation, the first of the charter's 17 articles establishes a commitment for each diocese to reach out to victims and their families with “counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups and other social services.”
The Pope also requested reform of wayward American seminaries, calling for an apostolic visitation to ensure that they are teaching and enforcing Church doctrine pertaining to human sexuality. The Dallas document barely touches on the subject, but Article 13 says each diocese “will employ adequate screening and evaluative techniques in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination.” Article 17 pledges “complete cooperation with the apostolic visitation of our diocesan/eparchial seminaries and religious houses of formation recommended in the interdicasterial meeting with the cardinals of the United States.”
Bishops in Dallas said that they did not have time to work out details of the apostolic visitation, which will be conducted by the U.S. bishops according to procedures approved by Rome. Nor did they have time to discuss at length any potential seminary reforms pertaining to admission and theological content — that will come next, they stressed.
“It will be part of what we have to do, and we've agreed upon that,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said. “Remember, it's an apostolic visitation. It's done by us, but it comes from the Holy See. And the details of that will be worked out between the president of the conference and the Holy See. I don't know when — probably in a few months. Visitation is important to make sure that there are proper screening processes in all seminaries and to make sure only proper candidates are approved.”
At issue is whether seminaries should accept homosexual candidates, even under strict special circumstances involving years of chastity and celibacy. Archbishop Chaput said the issue was raised by several bishops during executive session but was not discussed at length. In private conversations, he said, most bishops are expressing concern about the admission of homosexuals.
However, Archbishop Chaput said homosexuals in the priesthood should not be viewed as a primary cause of the sexual abuse scandal. Furthermore, he warned, simply screening them out cannot be viewed as a panacea.
The more pertinent issue, he said, has been the history of American priests and bishops succumbing to cultural pressure for leniency on many Church teachings pertaining to sex and marriage.
“We've seen a permissiveness regarding contraception and pre-marital sex, and the same priests who allow that can easily slip into giving themselves permission regarding other issues of sexual moralities,” Archbishop Chaput said. “It's a spirit that says each person and priest can decide individually what to accept in terms of Church teachings.”
Wayne Laugesen wrote this report from Dallas.