Vatican reviews priest abuse

October 20, 2002

BEFORE ROME can put its stamp of approval on the U.S. Catholic Church's strict policy on clergy abuse, the powers that be want to discuss it.

What more is there to discuss? Priests who prey on children for sexual gratification don't belong in a collar. Due to the often-serial nature of this crime, a sex offender's presence in parishes poses a threat to children. Period.

But the Vatican, in a letter issued last week to American church leaders, said the "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the bishops in Dallas last June conflicted with church law, apparently as it relates to a priest's due process rights.

Rome's concern about the rights of its priests, while understandable, shouldn't be misconstrued as a reason to relax the bishops' tough policy on predatory priests.

While many church leaders in the United States, including Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, have enforced the policy and removed priests from ministry, others have been less than forceful. And the past practice of some bishops routinely transferring an abusing priest from one parish to another has left church leaders open to charges of complicity in the abuse.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has noted that the Vatican's letter doesn't call on bishops to refrain from implementing the Dallas policy. In Baltimore, Cardinal Keeler has been out front in the removal of priests credibly accused of abuse, and his commitment to the safety of children should be emulated.

Ever since the Dallas protocol was announced, concerns have been raised about its sweeping nature and priests' rights under church law. The Code of Canon Law, for example, sets time limits on when a priest accused of child abuse can be disciplined.

A U.S.-Vatican commission is set to convene; it should be able to find a way to balance the rights of priests with a child's need to be protected. All efforts should be made to ensure that innocent priests aren't caught up in this dragnet, and any priest who believes he has been wrongly accused deserves the best legal counsel available and at church expense.

At least 300 of the country's 43,000 priests have been removed from their duties under the Dallas protocol. And yet only a handful of them have challenged their dismissal under church law. One has to ask: Why?

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