U.S. Bishops Fall Short Of Adopting Zero Tolerance Policy For Abusive Priests

By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer

DALLAS (AP) - After months of scandal that tore at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, American bishops adopted a policy Friday that will bar sexually abusive clergy from face-to-face contact with parishioners but keep them in the priesthood.

The national policy is intended to be binding on 178 mainstream dioceses, representing a major shift from the voluntary discipline guidelines the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has relied on for years. The bishops need Vatican approval to make the policy binding.

On the second day of a meeting filled with wrenching accounts of abuse by victims, the prelates stood and applauded after they approved the policy on a 239-13 vote by secret ballot.

"From this day forward no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president. He also apologized for "our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror" of sexual abuse.

Under the plan, abusers past and future will technically remain priests, but they will be prohibited from any work connected to the church -- from celebrating Mass to teaching in parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen.

Abusers still can be defrocked -- removed from the priesthood -- but it would be up to the presiding bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people.

The policy comes after months of unrelenting scandal in which at least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct claims. Victim after victim came forward with tortured stories of abuse at the hands of priests, and accusations that church leaders merely shuffled molesters between parishes.

Even as the prelates cheered, a Nebraska jury was awarding $800,000 to a former altar boy who was abused by a priest in the 1990s.

Before the summit, there was widespread speculation that the bishops would adopt a zero tolerance policy under which abusive priests would be automatically defrocked. That idea was dropped during closed-door debate.

Bishops said it seemed unfair to remove elderly men from the priesthood toward the end of their lives for allegations that in some cases date back decades.

"The majority of men these men are in their 60s, 70s and 80s," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said.

Salt Lake City Bishop George Niederauer, a member of the draft policy committee, said he felt the plan would still protect children. But victims were outraged.

"This is akin to telling a street killer in the city 'We're sending you to the country,'" said Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They will find children to prey upon."

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the policy reflected the need to show "Christ-like compassion" to priests.

"We call them our son," he said. "Therefore, we must continue to have that compassion and forgiveness like any parent."

So many last-minute changes were made to the policy that bishops were unable to provide a full text of the plan when it was adopted.

Still, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George urged his fellow bishops to embrace the policy, no matter their objections.

"We need to pass this policy with all its flaws, some of them very deep indeed," George said.

The Vatican will be asked to approve key parts of the policy to make it law in the U.S. church, which includes nearly 64 million Catholics. Since each diocese answers to Rome, Vatican authorization is needed to make the policy more than just a gentlemen's agreement.

The Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, had no immediate comment on the policy but said officials there would review it -- which looks to be a lengthy process.

There have been signs leaders in Rome were displeased with the reforms the Americans were discussing. Last month, the dean of canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University wrote that bishops should avoid telling congregations that priests had sexually abused someone if the bishops believe the priests will not abuse again.

The bishops began working on the policy after an April summit between Pope John Paul II and U.S. cardinals to discuss the scandal. The first draft was released only 11 days ago, and was revised in private discussions over the past week that culminated in a late-night session Thursday.

The speed with which the document was written and approved was stunning for a church that usually debates issues for years.

"This is a defining moment for us," Archbishop Harry Flynn said as he opened Friday's debate. "A moment for us to declare our resolve once and for all ... to root out a cancer in our church."

The church has been under intense scrutiny since January, when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston acknowledged that he allowed a pedophile priest, John Geoghan, to continue to serve in parishes.

Geoghan, now defrocked, was convicted this year of fondling a boy.

More than 130 people say they Geoghan molested them.

Besides the loss of 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests, victims have filed at least 300 civil lawsuits against church officials and district attorneys have weighed criminal charges. Four bishops have resigned, two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse and another priest was shot.

Some Catholics have warned they will redirect donations to charities over which church leaders have no control.

Earlier in the meeting, contrite bishops yielded the floor to victims who had criticized, picketed and sued them over the years for their perceived indifference. Gregory said the crisis was "perhaps the gravest we have faced."

Under the policy, bishops also must report all claims of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities. Church leaders have acknowledged that prelates in many cases had failed to report such allegations to law enforcement.

The plan also sets up diocesan review boards to look at complaints and assess the diocese's response. The boards are to be made up primarily of lay people.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)