The bishops vote Wednesday on changes that a group of American and Vatican representatives made earlier this month to a policy adopted in Dallas in June. The policy--or "norms"-need Vatican approval in order to be binding.
As the bishops struggle to clarify what the revised policy means for the actions they've already taken or will take in the future, victims' groups and lay activists continue to worry that the rules leave too much to the bishops' discretion.
It remains to be seen whether the bishops can find an interpretation everyone can understand, and agree upon. Amid the fuzzy language, Beliefnet offers its analysis of the issues the bishops face:
But some bishops had to be reassured that the inserted phrase "if the case so warrants"--which Lori said permits the ouster of an offender from the priesthood, not just from any sort of church ministry--was not a loophole.
Victims and lay groups interpreted this original Dallas policy as giving the boards significant responsibility and power.
But the revised policy calls review boards a "confidential consultative body" to "advise the diocesan bishop... in his assessment of allegations." The new policy also uses the word "his" frequently, making it clear that the final decision maker in evaluating abuse is the bishop, not the board. The bishops who worked with the Vatican to revise the policy maintain that this is not really a change. The lay boards' role "was consultative in Dallas, and it's consultative now," said Bishop Lori.
Though the revised language makes it clear that bishops are the ones with final say, bishops insisted that the boards would have a great influence. "I would not want to be the bishop to ignore the advice of the review board," Bishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis said.
Canon law entitles an accused priest to appear before a tribunal. Tribunals don't replace the lay review boards or interfere with civil trials, and they "are not a buddy system" that lets priests off the hook, says Lori. In fact, says Silva, tribunals--usually comprised of three priests experienced in canon law--are likely to be less lenient to their fellow priests. And even if a tribunal clears the priest, the revised norms give bishops other measures by which they can keep abusive priests out of the ministry, according to Lori.
But lay groups felt the focus on priests' rights--and all the new norm language supporting it--obscure the larger problem. "Where's due process for victims and for bishops who covered up?" says Susan Troy of the lay group Voice of the Faithful. Others want civil penalties to be the focus. "Canon law is not relevant to cases that violate state felony statutes," says Cotton. "A priest can have canon law protection from a jail cell."