Vatican refuses OK of child-abuse policy

Revisions to be crafted by Rome, U.S. bishops

October 19, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Angering sexual-abuse victims but heartening some Catholic priests, the Vatican informed U.S. bishops yesterday that it will not approve their policy for dealing with clergy abuse allegations until concerns over vague language and conflicts with church law can be resolved.

The revisions will be hammered out by a joint commission of American bishops and Vatican officials over the next month. It should be completed in time for the bishops' next meeting, Nov. 11-14 in Washington, said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel here," Gregory said at a news conference in Rome, where he met with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials this week.

"We have to take the existing document and strengthen, clarify and bring it into conformity with the laws of the universal church or be granted a status of particular law," a kind of local exemption from worldwide church law.

But the Vatican's objections strike at the heart of key provisions of the bishops' sexual abuse policy: the role of local review boards, which involve lay people, in handling sexual-abuse complaints against clergy, and the "zero-tolerance" stance that ousts priests who have committed a single offense at any time.

The bishops were seeking Vatican approval of the policy so they could compel all bishops in the country to follow it.

In a two-page letter, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Vatican prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, praised the efforts of the U.S. bishops in drafting the policy to respond to the American church's sexual-abuse crisis.

But while saying the Holy See is "deeply moved by the sufferings of the victims and their families," Re called the application of the new policy a "source of confusion and ambiguity" because parts of it conflict with canon law, the regulations that govern church life.

Also, Re said, some of the terminology is "at times vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret."

Gregory suggested the Vatican is troubled, in part, by the review boards that each bishop is required to appoint to weigh abuse allegations. Critics have said the review boards abrogate the authority of the bishop.

The Vatican also apparently believes that the process for punishing an abusive priest conflicts with his rights under canon law.

For example, the church follows a statute of limitations that requires a minor who was abused to make a claim within 10 years after turning 18. The U.S. bishops' policy, however, takes a zero-tolerance stance that permanently removes from ministry a priest who committed a single act of sexual abuse, no matter when it occurred.

And a key flaw in the eyes of the Vatican is the policy's broad definition of "sexual abuse," a concept that sparked lively debate during the bishops' June meeting.

According to the definition adopted by the bishops, a priest only has to use another person as an object of sexual gratification, and does not have to actually touch the person, for sexual abuse to occur.

"The question is, what definition must we follow?" Gregory said. "Is it a simple legal definition? A definition to be found in the manuals of moral theology? A definition we would have to craft ourselves?"

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said, "The spin that the Vatican rejected the charter isn't really true.

"Instead of just reviewing it by themselves, the Vatican has said, `Let's talk it over, let's nuance it a little, let's look at the canon law and let's dot our i's and cross our t's,'" he said.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore was not available for comment.

Advocates for abuse victims reacted to the delay with outrage.

"American bishops may try to spin this and minimize what the Vatican has done, but make no mistake about it - Rome's bureaucrats have rejected the weak measures bishops adopted in Dallas, and our children are at risk as a result," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

"We don't need another panel, committee or study," she said. "Church leaders have studied this issue for decades. We need moral courage, not study."

But the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said the Vatican's concerns for due process reflected those expressed by U.S. priests.

"It's the issue of just treatment," Silva said. "And I want to be very careful because I don't want to in any way imply I want to see priests who have offended get off the hook. It's not a question of getting people off the hook. It's a question of just treatment."

The fact that the Vatican withheld its approval from a policy of the U.S. bishops is not uncommon. Other proposals underwent several revisions over a period of years before they gained approval.

"This is a fairly common collegial exercise," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life and a critic of aspects of the abuse policy.

He said the Vatican's critique and invitation to form the joint commission "holds high promise for clarifying and rectifying what went wrong at Dallas."

Courtney Walsh, reporting from Rome, contributed to this article.

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