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US Roman Catholic Bishops Vote to Remove Priests Who Abuse Children - 2002-06-15

Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have voted to remove priests who abuse children from the ministry, while letting them remain in the priesthood. The new policy is the bishops' response to a sex abuse scandal they are calling the gravest crisis to hit the church. But some victims of abuse say the new policy is not tough enough.

After a nearly daylong debate on proposed amendments to the sex abuse charter, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve the document. Conference President Bishop Wilton Gregory took the podium after the vote was announced. "From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," he said. "We bishops apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests, and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse."

The proposal calls for all priests who abuse children in the future, as well as those guilty of past abuse, to be immediately removed from priestly duties, such as saying Mass or teaching in parochial schools. But, they will technically remain Roman Catholic priests. Abuse victim Peter Isely of the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said this is not the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy some bishops spoke of adopting. "Zero tolerance for teachers means what? It means if you are a sex offender who committed an act of sexual abuse as a teacher, you are no longer a teacher. You do not get to keep your certification. You lose your license," he said.

During an afternoon break from the meeting, Washington, DC Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told reporters that people define zero tolerance in many ways, and he thinks this is a good way. Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, New York said the conference was right to listen to abuse victims while drawing up the policy, but should not allow them to determine the proper punishment for abusive priests. "They can articulate their pain, which they did admirably yesterday, and it affected every bishop who heard them," he said. "I think it is the responsibility, frankly, of the bishops, to make the decisions of what is appropriate in the care of his people. He is the shepherd who lays down his life for the flock, of which the priest is a part."

Hundreds of abuse victims have come forward this year to tell their stories of being raped or molested by priests, in some cases more than 30 years ago. Since January, 250 priests have stepped down or been dismissed because of sexual misconduct. Four bishops have also resigned.

SNAP group member Mark Serrano disagrees with bishops who say the new policy ensures children will be safe from abusive priests. "To me, that is like taking the street killer out of the city and moving him to the country. He is still going to seek his victims. That is what sexual predators are like," he said. "You can not stop them. You can not monitor them 24 hours a day. The best thing to do is get them in jail. That is what protects children."

The bishops say the policy is effective immediately, although it is not officially binding until the Vatican approves it.