Fulda, Germany -- German bishops presented long-awaited recommendations yesterday for curbing sexual abuse by Catholic priests and capped months of deliberations with an apology to victims and a pledge of greater vigilance.
The new measures were adopted in response to a series of abuse cases in Germany this year that were revealed as reports of sexual abuse by clergy grabbed headlines worldwide, especially in the United States. The scandal has clouded the last years of Pope John Paul II and shaken the church.
Like guidelines unveiled by U.S. bishops in June, the plan adopted by the German Bishops' Conference this week attempts to answer pressures to quickly report cases of abuse to civil authorities.
However, the new rules allow individual dioceses to first investigate suspicions of sexual abuse on their own. If suspicions about a priest are corroborated, he would be urged to surrender to prosecutors or, "depending on the case," he would be reported to criminal authorities by the church.
Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the head of the conference, told a news conference he was confident that the rules would "bring objectivity and transparency into individual cases, and thereby restore trust and credibility lost through the handling of certain cases in the past."
Priests believed to have sexually abused minors will be moved to duties that keep them away from children and will get therapy, he said, outlining measures the church could take independent of a criminal investigation. In serious cases, clergy could be expelled from the priesthood.
In a statement accompanying the new guidelines, German bishops admitted they had misunderstood the problem and had dealt with it inadequately.
"With regard to the victims, we are deeply sorry about this," they said.
A German-based group that counsels sexual abuse victims criticized the guidelines and apology as timid.