U.S. Catholic bishops meeting in Washington have approved a revised policy on how to deal with clergy who sexually abuse young people.
The revised sex abuse policy is designed to protect children from predator priests, while at the same time preserving the rights of priests who are accused of sexual misconduct.
The bishops voted for the revised plan by a margin of 246-7. Six bishops abstained.
The revisions came about after the Vatican raised concerns that a sweeping anti-abuse policy adopted by the American bishops earlier this year did not go far enough in ensuring that accused priests will get a fair hearing within the Church.
The revisions will allow bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry to determine whether a sexual abuse claim is credible. If the bishop decides that it is, the priest would be put on leave and go before a clerical tribunal to have his case heard.
"We are sometimes asked to choose between the accuser and the accused," said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, one of the architects of the revised abuse policy. "But of course, precisely as bishops, let alone as disciples of the Lord, we cannot choose one or the other. We have to choose both. We have to love both."
But groups representing victims of sexual abuse by priests say the measures adopted by the bishops do not go far enough. They contend the new policy gives bishops too much leeway in dealing with accused priests and allows too much secrecy in how the Church deals with accused clergy.
"We hear over and over and over the same drumbeat from the bishops: 'we can not do this for that reason and we can not do this for that reason,' said David Clohessy, director of a group called the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But we do know that they are men with a bully pulpit and they can use that and should use that to speak out against what their brothers have done."
The bishops' action follows 10 months of turmoil within the Catholic Church in the United States over a sexual abuse scandal that has forced more than 300 priests to leave their posts because of allegations that, in some cases, date back decades.