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US Bishops Consider New Rules for Abusive Priests - 2002-06-05

A Roman Catholic Church panel says any American priest who abuses a child in the future should be removed from the priesthood, but priests with only one case of abuse in their past might be able to remain in the ministry. The panel's recommendations will be considered by U.S. Catholic bishops when they meet next week.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' special Committee on Sexual Abuse calls for zero tolerance of child sexual abuse by priests, but only for future incidents.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota heads the committee. "The policy itself," he said, "calls for one act of sexual abuse and that priest is out of the priesthood, recalling the words of our Holy Father, John Paul II, when he said there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who would abuse the young."

The committee says priests who have abused more than one child in the past should also be removed from the priesthood, but that those with only one case of abuse in their past might get a second chance. The committee suggests those priests be sent for treatment and then be evaluated by a panel composed of clergy and non-clergy to determine whether they can return to the ministry.

That second chance for some abusive priests is why Barbara Blaine of the Chicago-based group "Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests," is only willing to call the panel's recommendations a first step. "Clearly, "she said, "the bishops do not grasp the pain and suffering that victims and their families experience. Because, if they did, they would have a really strong zero-tolerance policy. They would not have priests who have molested children being allowed to remain in ministry."

The issue of zero tolerance for abusive priests is likely to be a contentious one when bishops meet next week in Dallas to create a nationwide policy for Catholic clergy who abuse children. Hundreds of adults in just the last few months have come forward to report past abuse by priests. The handling of those cases has varied from diocese to diocese. In many cases, priests were transferred to other parishes rather than disciplined.

The committee proposal calls for creating a national child protection office, which would educate dioceses on protecting children. It also recommends creating a review board to work with the child protection office to examine how the church is responding to abuse.

Claire Noonan is a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Catholic reform group, "Call to Action." She said her group worries the panel's recommendations could leave local bishops with too much control over how abuse cases are handled. She said, "We are happy to see that they are going to appoint boards that are dominated by lay people not in the employ of the church. We would have liked them to have those boards appointed not by the bishops but by the diocesan pastoral councils in order to assure as much independence as possible in their operation."

The committee's plan also includes apologies to victims and emphasizes the bishops' commitment to reform. Barbara Blaine of the Survivor's Network hopes the bishops consider the recommendations to be a starting point at next week's meeting. She said, "We are very hopeful that the bishops minds and hearts will remain open and that after they hear the concerns of the victims, that they will tighten things in their policy.

Whatever policy the bishops develop next week is subject to approval by officials at the Vatican. A Vatican spokesman Tuesday said the Holy See will not comment on the committee's recommendations before the bishops' meeting.