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US Bishops Approve Revised Sexual Misconduct Policy - 2002-11-14

U.S. Catholic bishops met in Washington this past week and approved a revised policy aimed at dealing with sexual misconduct by priests. The new guidelines follow a 10-month scandal that has shaken the foundation of the Catholic Church in the United States. But victims of sexual abuse by clergy say the new policy does not go far enough.

By an overwhelming margin, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved new guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse that are intended to protect young people from predatory priests and also keep members of the clergy from being wrongly accused.

The new policy gives Catholic bishops less authority to decide allegations of abuse.

Bishops will still have an initial role in deciding the credibility of an allegation. But it will now be up to church tribunals to decide the guilt or innocence of a priest accused of sexual misconduct.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George played a leading role in shaping the new policy. "In limiting our own discretionary authority in this way, we find ourselves, even as we allow courts to use their discretionary authority in its fullness, we find ourselves humbled as bishops and as servants of the Lord," said Cardinal George. "But humiliation can be a step on the path of purification, and the path of purification is always the path to holiness."

The bishops did a lot of apologizing this week in the wake of a 10-month-old sexual abuse scandal that has led to more than 300 priests leaving their posts and has shaken the faith of U.S. Catholics.

Among those seeking forgiveness was Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law who has come under heavy criticism for his handling of sex abuse claims against priests. "We have a lot of challenges," he said. "Our work is not done. But thank God we are where we are today. We are in a much better place than we were 10 months ago and these norms are an exceedingly significant step for us to take as a conference. Thank you."

The bishops reaffirmed their commitment, made at a meeting earlier this year in Dallas, to a zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct for priests. Any priest found guilty of a single case of sexual abuse will be removed from public ministry.

The bishops also pledged to report any case involving a child to local police.

But after pressure from the Vatican, U.S. bishops revised the policy to protect the rights of accused priests, and to establish a process that ensures that their fate will be determined by church tribunals, not by individual bishops.

But groups representing victims of sexual abuse by clergy say the new policy does not go far enough. Ann Webb made this statement on behalf of a group called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "As survivors of sexual abuse by priests, we know brokenness and fear," said Ann Webb. "We know what it is to lose our spirts. We know how it is to live in uncertainty. We have come to Washington seeking the same thing we sought in Dallas. It is the same thing we have sought from the American bishops for well over a decadecomfort and hope."

Some of the disillusioned Catholics who came to Washington to challenge the bishops had a more confrontational attitude.

Christine Dolan has been investigating allegations of clergy abuse worldwide for a group called the International Humanitarian Campaign against the Exploitation of Children. She says some bishops should be held legally responsible for transferring abusive priests from parish to parish. "To hold you criminally accountable for crimes that have gone on for decades. Decades," she said. "There are people who are dead because of these people's actions. People have committed suicide. They have gotten addicted to drugs. They want to do anything to get this monstrous memory out of their minds."

The bishops acknowledge that mistakes were made in the handling of some of the sex-abuse cases. But Cardinal Francis George of Chicago insists that the new policy will protect young people from sexual predators. "The bishop has moved in a very inappropriate way at times, as has been admitted in case after case, to protect a priest when he should not have protected a priest, but should have protected, first of all, innocent children," he said.

Despite their criticisms of the new policy, victims rights groups believe they are making some progress. Peter Isely is a psychiatrist who has treated sexual abuse victims and is a spokesman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "We were here in this city 10 years ago and they were not going to remove predators from ministry," said Peter Isely. "They absolutely were not going to do it. And here we are standing today and over 300 of them have been removed from ministry in less than one year. So perhaps in less than another year, we might begin to see at least the discussion take place that disciplinary measures have to be developed and enacted."

Vatican officials must approve the revised guidelines presented by the U.S. bishops. It is expected that it will take at least a year to organize the church tribunals that would try priests accused of sexual misconduct. Winning back the confidence of American Catholics in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal is likely to take a lot longer.