FAQ: Bishops' Conference on Sexual Abuse

What the bishops' conference is, what it was asked to accomplish, and how the prelates voted.


Friday's Vote
What did the U.S. Catholic bishops decide on Friday?

The Charter they approved (

read it

) by a 239-13 vote would allow some past abusers to technically remain priests. However, the abusers would be barred from any work connected to the church--from celebrating Mass to teaching in a parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen. They would also be barred from presenting themselves as priests or wearing clerical clothes.

Priests still could be defrocked (removed from the priesthood), but this decision would be left to the priest's bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people.

The new Charter also:

  • Requires that dioceses report any accusation of sexual abuse of a minor to law enforcement officials;
  • Calls for diocesan review boards to assess accusations and determine the diocese's response. The boards would be made up primarily of lay people;
  • Prohibits dioceses from signing confidentiality agreements with victims in civil lawsuits over sex abuse, unless the victim insists;
  • Requires ministry to victims, such as support groups and counseling

    So did the bishops adopt zero tolerance?

    It depends who you ask. The Charter would prevent face-to-face contact between abusers and the public. However, victims are calling for abusers to be automatically and permanently defrocked, not simply barred from ministry.

    What's the difference between defrocking and being barred from ministry?

    Priests who are defrocked are completely expelled from the church, and lose their pensions. Those who are removed from the ministry are never again allowed to act as priests, but retain some of the benefits earned over their years in the clergy.

    In the Catholic Church, priests are removed from the priesthood through a paperwork process called laicization. The Vatican must approve laicization requests.

    What will happen to priests who abused many decades ago?

    According to the new plan, they would likely be confined to restricted areas (such as a retreat house or monastery). The Charter's softened language would allow some elderly clerics nearing the end of their service to keep their pensions and other basic benefits accrued over the course of their careers.

    Are the older cases ambiguous or unsubstantiated?

    The majority of the older cases the bishops referred to in their debates were clear-cut cases of sexual abuse.

    Now that the vote has passed, what else needs to happen?

    The policy needs to be approved by the Vatican to become binding on all U.S. dioceses. However, bishops can start implementing the policy while they wait for a "recognitio," or formal approval.

    Has the Vatican ever overturned votes by the conference?

    Yes: A recent example involved rules to be followed by Catholic theologians. After the Vatican ordered new guidelines for theology taught at Catholic universities, the U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved a set of rules in 1996. The Vatican rejected them for not being specific enough. The bishops responded with a more specific set of rules in 1999 that the Vatican later approved.

    Bishops at this week's meeting said they expected the Vatican would sign off on the Charter.

    Bishop Basics
    What is a bishop and what is a diocese? Are archdioceses and cardinals different?

    He is the leader of a specific group of priests, churches and other Catholic institutions (schools, for instance), usually within a specific geographic boundary, called a diocese. His authority does not extend beyond that area. Archdioceses are larger dioceses, often often large cities; they are headed by an archbishop, which is one step up from a bishop.

    Some archdioceses are run by cardinals--bishops who have been appointed by the pope to participate in the college of cardinals, an administrative body of the church (which, incidentally, chooses a new pope when one passes away). Broadly speaking, the church's hierarchy from the top down goes Pope-Cardinal-Archbishop-Bishop-Priest.

    Who is a bishop's boss? How do bishops resign?

    Bishops are appointed for life by the pope and can only be moved or removed by the pope. A bishop must submit his resignation to the pope at age 75, who might not immediately accept it. Once the resignation is accepted, he becomes a retired bishop, not a former bishop.

    What is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops--and does it meet like this often?

    The USCCB's own website describes the conference as something like a trade organization. It's made up of almost 300 bishops from the nation's 195 dioceses, plus about 100 retired bishops. The conference meets twice a year.

    What power does the conference have?

    Less than you might think. It has issued reports on topics ranging from nuclear war to cloning, and the body takes votes on issues and policies, but it is not a legislative group. Votes taken by the conference cannot establish national policy that is binding on all dioceses. Binding national policy can only be established with Vatican approval.

    Less than you might think. It has issued reports on topics ranging from nuclear war to cloning, and the body takes votes on issues and policies, but it is not a legislative group. Votes taken by the conference cannot establish national policy that is binding on all dioceses. Binding national policy can only be established with Vatican approval.

    Past Sex Abuse
    What has been done about sex abuse in the Catholic church in the past?

    In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted five principles for dealing with abuse accusations. The principles said church officials must respond promptly to abuse allegations; remove priests if evidence supported the allegations and refer them to medical help; comply with all laws on reporting the incident; reach out to victims; and deal openly with the problem while respecting the privacy of those involved.

    Why wasn't that enough?

    Why wasn't that enough?

    The bishops conference issued the 1992 policy as recommendations for each diocese. But the bishops and archbishops who lead the nation's 194 dioceses were under no obligation to implement them. At this point, nearly all U.S. dioceses have adopted some formal sexual abuse policies, but they vary widely.

    Why didn't the Vatican get more involved?

    Why didn't the Vatican get more involved?

    Bishops and archbishops are the ultimate authorities in their dioceses. The Vatican usually avoids intruding on local matters. Some Vatican voices believe that the scandal's proportions have been exaggerated by church reformers and the media.

    Couldn't the pope have done something?

    Couldn't the pope have done something?

    The church is not run like a multinational corporation, and the pope does not function as the CEO. When the pope did intervene, it was after American bishops asked for the Vatican's guidance on how to proceed.

    Continued on page 2: »

  • comments powered by Disqus