May 22, 2002

America's bishops haven't even settled on new measures to crack down on clergy sex abuse, and already Roman Catholics are wondering if the Vatican will approve those decisions.

The bishops plan to work out a nationwide reform package at a meeting in Dallas next month. Most likely it will include a ``zero tolerance'' policy toward errant priests in the future and possibly for priests guilty of past misdeeds. But those rules will need Rome's approval to be binding on every local bishop, and new doubts have been raised about the Vatican mindset, which is shaped by the church's internal legal code - known as canon law - far more than public opinion.

Those worries escalated when the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an influential Vatican adviser, asserted in an article published Saturday that: -A bishop should not refer an abuse allegation to police until he has first reached ``moral certainty'' that the priest is guilty, through the church's internal legal processes.

-If a priest is reassigned to parish work after molesting someone, his past shouldn't be revealed, since that violates his right under church law to good reputation and discredits his ministry in advance.

-A bishop should not require an accused priest to undergo psychological examination to assess inclinations toward abuse because that offends the canonical right to privacy.

Ghirlanda's piece, written before the Vatican's April sex abuse summit with U.S. cardinals and bishops, appeared in La Civilta Cattolica (``Catholic Civilization''). The Jesuit magazine's contents are particularly noteworthy because the central Vatican agency, the Secretariat of State, reviews them before publication.

The article doesn't state church policy, but it obviously reflects a segment of Vatican thinking. Ghirlanda himself is an official adviser to six Vatican agencies and the Vatican's appeals court, and is dean of the canon law faculty at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University.

After the article was released, creating a stir among Catholic observers, Ghirlanda underscored his opinions in an interview Monday with the U.S. bishops' Catholic News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, a liberal U.S. newsweekly that has crusaded about abuse for years, notes that two top Vatican officials also oppose automatic reporting of abuse allegations to secular authorities: Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the canon law council, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the second-ranking official in the doctrine office, which the pope put in charge of abuse cases last year.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, says Rome has a legitimate reason to worry about abuse reporting policies spreading to nations that persecute Catholics and don't respect the rights of the accused.

But he says the article is a reminder that ``we can't assume that anything that comes out of Dallas will be immediately approved by Rome without any changes.'' American bishops, however, generally sound receptive to sweeping reforms and appear unlikely to back down.

For example, at a meeting Monday, bishops from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas agreed the U.S. hierarchy should refer all allegations to police and should never reassign abusers.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ghirlanda's opinions are beside the point in the wake of the April summit.

``Our cardinals and officers have spoken directly to the Roman congregations related to this and feel they're on the same page,'' he said. ``The groundwork has been laid for the bishops to make a successful policy that the Holy See will ratify.''

Maniscalco dismissed Ghirlanda's stance against reporting to police: ``He's a canon lawyer, not a civil lawyer, and our bishops do have to obey the laws of our country. That kind of settles that.''

The bishops' spokesman also disagreed with Ghirlanda on psychological evaluation. U.S. bishops regularly employ psychologists ``to find out how severe the problem is,'' he said, and if a priest refuses, ``that is not a good sign for your ability to trust him further, though he has the right.''

Zero tolerance, however, is a more complex issue, in Maniscalco's view. He says the U.S. bishops all accept zero tolerance, defined as assurance that no priest will be given a future assignment where he endangers children. But, he said, the bishops will debate in Dallas whether to retain priests who were successfully treated for past abuse, perhaps in jobs apart from local parishes.

``In the present climate, some people don't find that acceptable. They want everybody out,'' he said. ``The bishops understand that feeling and how strong it is, but they also understand the need for evaluation on a case-by-case basis.''

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