DALLAS -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved a mandatory policy yesterday on clergy sexual abuse that would bar priests who ever molested children from ministry but would not necessarily remove them from the priesthood.
The policy falls short of the zero tolerance called for by sexual abuse victims and many lay Catholics and church leaders. It appeared to be a compromise between bishops who wanted to take a hard line and those who favored compassion for elderly priests who might have been involved in an isolated case of abuse decades ago.
The policy is tougher than an earlier draft that would have left individual bishops the option of retaining priests who had committed a single offense in years past. And because the policy is intended to be binding, it's a big change from voluntary disciplinary rules the bishops have used.
Effective immediately, the policy says, "For even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry."
The policy does offer some priests who are ill or elderly the possibility of remaining a priest but living a "life of prayer and penance" in a controlled environment such as a monastery or what some bishops described as a "safe house."
The bishops amended the document yesterday to add that such priests would not be permitted to offer Mass publicly, wear priestly garb or present themselves publicly as priests.
Defrocking a priest would be left to the discretion of each bishop, acting on the recommendation of a lay review panel.
The policy, titled a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, was approved 239-13. Before it can become binding, the Vatican must approve it.
After the vote, the bishops began applauding, and the group gradually came to its feet.
"The sum total of those actions means that bishops will not tolerate even one act of sexual abuse of a minor," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There will be severe consequences for any act of sexual abuse. No free pass. No second chances. No free strike.
"For those who think or say that this is not zero tolerance, then they have not read it carefully."
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, who was a strong advocate of zero tolerance, said he is satisfied with the new policy.
"I think the essence of what we were looking for is there," he said. The bottom line, he said, is that anyone who would harm a child will be forever barred from ministry in the church.
Representatives of abuse victims were more skeptical.
"Is it enough? We don't believe so," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Will it be implemented? We simply have to see. History has shown us we simply can't take these men at their word."
Other abuse victims were disappointed that the policy would allow abusers to remain priests.
"I'm a therapist," said Peter Isely, a SNAP representative and abuse victim. "If there is any sexual contact with a patient, I lose my license. ... Do you lose your ordination to the priesthood? No. [The bishops] are going to have to explain that."
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a national Catholic weekly, said that under the new guidelines, an abuser effectively loses his ability to function as a priest.
"The exemption is gone -- past, present and future," he said. "He can't wear a Roman collar. He can't say Mass. He can't hear confessions. He is no longer in the powerful position he abused."
Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the St. Paul-Minneapolis diocese, who led the committee that drafted the policy, called yesterday's vote an opportunity "for us to root out a cancer on our church."
"This is a defining moment for us ... as bishops," he said.
Among its provisions, the new charter bans confidentiality agreements as part of legal settlements except for "grave and substantial reasons" requested by the victim.
It requires bishops to report all allegations of abuse involving minors to civil authorities and pledges the cooperation of bishops with authorities in reporting allegations involving those who are no longer minors.
Addressing calls for greater accountability of the bishops, the charter establishes a national Office of Child and Youth Protection, which will prepare an annual report assessing how each diocese and bishop implements the new policy.
A national review board of 15 to 18 people that will be led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating will oversee that office.
The bishops spent much of the morning and early afternoon poring over the wording and focusing on defining specifics of the new policy.
Several bishops were concerned about the requirement that bishops report any allegation to civil authorities, worried that priests might become targets for unfounded accusations.