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.