Beliefnet
Beliefnet's Senior Religion Producer will file regular dispatches from Dallas.

Day 2

Six months ago, most of the nation's Catholic bishops were--to put it charitably--obtuse in their understanding of how to deal with clergy sexual abuse. First they ignored the media storm. Then they tried to spin the criticism as Catholic-bashing.

By late April, the eight U.S. cardinals were traveling to Rome for an audience with the pope. But they emerged with a muddled message, declaring first that they would implement a zero-tolerance policy and then later saying they would summarily defrock only "notorious" repeat offenders. Finally, early this month, they issued a draft of the new policy that would have allowed a loophole for one-strike past offenders.

The bishops just didn't get it.

But this week, after six hard months (or 20 years, depending how you look at it), they finally did get it. They emerged from an embarrassing, exhausting, wrenching meeting with a tough document committing them to bouncing out of ministry any priest guilty of any sexual offense with children or teenagers in his past, present, or future (read excerpts). They promised to immediately turn over to civil authorities the names of priests who are even simply accused of sexual abuse with minors. They pledged to hold a day of fasting and penance for their own sins on Aug. 14.

Perhaps most significantly, they promised to appoint a national review board that will produce an annual accounting to determine which dioceses are complying--and which aren't--with the new rules. The national board includes Gov. Frank Keating, R-Okla., and Washington attorney Robert Bennett (brother of former Reagan drug czar Bill Bennett). Keating has said he will press for the resignation of bishops--including Cardinal Law--who have handled abuse cases improperly.

"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops conference, said after the bishops approved the document. And to clergy abuse victims, he said in a later news conference: "Your pain will not be forgotten."

Victims, however, aren't happy with the new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The document says that, effective immediately, an offending cleric will not be allowed to wear a collar, celebrate Mass publicly, identify himself as a priest, or participate in any ministry. And it suggests such priests be sent to monasteries to live out their days in "a regiment of prayer and penance in a controlled environment." But victims say the document is critically flawed because it doesn't immediately force the church to defrock such offenders.

"We all know the kind of restrictive measures that priests who molest children should have is the restriction of a jail cell," says David Clohessy, national organizer of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, a leading expert on the American Catholic bishops, says there are good reasons for not getting wound up over the defrocking issue. For one thing, says Reese, the process of defrocking a priest (technically called "laicization") is a hellish adventure in paperwork. For another thing, Vatican officials are "nervous" about defrocking any of their priests, and the Vatican has the ultimate say--a situation that would make the entire process extremely difficult for American bishops. And finally, according to Reese, there is an argument to be made that it's better to keep priest offenders under church supervision than to throw them out on the street, where they could get into more trouble.

But victims are also angry that the bishops didn't deal more directly with their own blame for the crisis. Why, asked SNAP president Peter Isely, are bishops still in office when many of them have in the past moved such offending priests around instead of turning them over to the police?

Some of those issues were thrashed out behind closed doors on Thursday, according to Reese. It's clear from watching the bishops' body language and reading between the lines that the group is badly divided. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose archdiocese is at the center of the storm, has appeared isolated this week from many of his fellow bishops, often moving around the ballroom and the hallways alone.

Gregory alluded to the rift on Thursday when he said, "There is a lot of anger among us in this room--righteous anger...The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a number of bishops during the past 10 years. The anger over this is very real and very understandable. I know. I feel it myself."

And apparently there has been frank talk of the need for the bishops to do something to acknowledge their own culpability. The closed-door session, according to Reese, included talk of asking guilty bishops to resign--although no one named Law specifically.

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