The Vatican is particularly concerned that some parts of the policy would violate the individual rights of accused clerics now protected under church law, the sources said. Victims' groups in the United States were outraged, and said this shows the church--despite being wracked by scandal--is still more concerned about sheltering molester priests than helping children.
But an organization representing American clerics said priests deserve every right to defend themselves against abuse claims. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said "this is further proof that, as we have long said, the church can not reform itself."
The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, called the Vatican response "good news." "It'll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment," said Silva, whose organization claims about half of the 46,000 U.S. priests as members.
The Vatican response will be made public Friday. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other American prelates met Thursday with Pope John Paul II to discuss the abuse crisis. Members of the U.S. hierarchy declined interview requests.
At least 300 American priests have been removed from their ministries since the abuse scandal erupted in January with the case of a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston who was reassigned even after molestation complaints surfaced. Responding to the abuse crisis, U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved the new policy at a meeting in June.
But ever since, Vatican officials and U.S. church lawyers have raised objections to parts of the plan, arguing they may violate the due process rights of priests. Some priests who have been removed from their posts have already appealed to the Vatican for reinstatement.
Still, Vatican officials and top U.S. churchmen had said they expected the Holy See would go along with them anyway, on a trial basis. Full Vatican approval had not been expected, and the American bishops may see this response as encouraging for their efforts to stamp out sexual abuse among clergy. The Vatican sources stressed that the entire plan has not been rejected, and that it could be viewed as a work in progress to satisfy the various objections. A church source said a joint commission of U.S. and Vatican officials will be formed to resolve the problems.
The Vatican's response is said to be short on specifics. Nevertheless, it is recommending the bishops be cautious in implementing the more controversial sections of the policy, the sources said. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify the various elements that the Vatican opposed. But they made it clear they dealt with provisions regarding the rights of priests under universal church law.
The provisions in the new policy include requiring dioceses to remove guilty priests from church work, and, in some instances, from the priesthood itself. It also removes a statute of limitations for abuse claims, saying a guilty priest will be relieved of his ministry for "even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor--past, present or future." Church lawyers have questioned whether the plan conflicts with canon law, and whether the diocesan lay review boards mandated in the plan have too much authority.
The bishops want Vatican approval so their policy has the full weight of Rome behind them. A full rejection would be an embarrassing blow to U.S. bishops who are struggling to restore their credibility. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press after talks with cardinals in Rome, said he expected the pope would accept the policy, and would grant the American church a waiver to get around aspects of church law that may conflict with the new rules.