Vatican response means bishops' policy on abuse remains voluntary

Associated Press/October 19, 2002
By Rachel Zoll

New York -- America's Roman Catholic bishops intended their crackdown policy on sexually abusive priests to be mandatory for every diocese.

But the Vatican's demand for revisions Friday means the plan remains voluntary for now, leaving in place a patchwork of compliance across the country, weaker than the bishops' plan in some places, stronger in others.

Many dioceses have delayed permanently removing clergy guilty of abuse until the Vatican accepts the policy, which still could happen as soon as next month. Other dioceses have been more aggressive than required, promising not only to discipline abusers, but also to punish those who fail to report them.

Mike Emerton, a spokesman for the lay reform movement Voice of the Faithful, criticized this approach as a "line-item veto," potentially allowing as many interpretations of the policy as there are dioceses.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said Friday that he expects dioceses to continue to follow the plan until the Vatican approves a final draft of the document. Church leaders have also said that no one in this climate of public anger over abuse would dare violate the policy, which the prelates overwhelmingly adopted in June.

"There may be a nuance here or there in different cases in different circumstances, but it was pretty clear what we voted on," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. "We're all under the same obligations and the same methodology of how we should approach it."

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said it has evidence that 13 of the 195 U.S. dioceses are not following the policy.

But the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse released a report last month saying most bishops were in compliance _ forming review boards mainly of lay people, crafting written policies on responding to abuse and developing procedures for publicly revealing complaints against priests.

Still, the report did not say whether bishops were implementing a key part of the reforms: removing guilty clergy from church work and, in some cases, from the priesthood altogether.

Catholic officials in Louisville, Kentucky and Newark, New Jersey are among many nationwide waiting to permanently oust abusive priests until the Vatican gives its final word on the policy. Many of the claims against priests emerging now are from years and even decades ago, beyond the statute of limitations set in church law.

Some archbishops have said it makes no sense to permanently discipline these priests if the Holy See eventually decides to bar church leaders from doing so. A handful of accused clergy who have been punished in the Archdiocese of Chicago and elsewhere have already appealed to the Vatican.

"I don't think any bishop could very well invoke those norms, since they'll be subject to revision," said Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Kentucky, which is being sued by more than 180 people claiming they were abused by priests and workers there.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, has taken a different approach, adopting a local policy earlier this month that is stricter than what the bishops' conference required.

The national plan allows some guilty clergy to remain priests if they are removed from all church work, but DiMarzio has pledged to oust all molesters from the priesthood. He also promised to punish anyone in the diocese who knows a child is being abused and fails to report it.

DiMarzio released a statement Friday saying he would continue to follow that strict policy as the Vatican conducts its review. About a dozen people who say they were abused are suing his diocese.

The bishops have created their own means of enforcing their plan, forming an oversight panel of bishops and an independent lay National Review Board, led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, to evaluate whether church leaders were meeting the new standards.

Gregory said he hoped a commission of Vatican officials and U.S. prelates created Friday to revamp the policy will wrap up its work in time for a November meeting of all American bishops.

Susan Archibald, president of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, said the American church is at an important crossroads as it awaits word on whether the policy will have the force of church law.

"Bishops, the ball is in your court," Archibald said. "The Vatican has opened a door to let you out of your commitment in Dallas. Are you going to stick together and do the right thing, or one by one, slip out the door?"

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