2016-06-30



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.

    Who is a bishop's boss? How do bishops resign?

    Bishops are appointed for life by the pope and can only be moved or removed by the pope. A bishop must submit his resignation to the pope at age 75, who might not immediately accept it. Once the resignation is accepted, he becomes a retired bishop, not a former bishop.

    What is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops--and does it meet like this often?

    The USCCB's own website describes the conference as something like a trade organization. It's made up of almost 300 bishops from the nation's 195 dioceses, plus about 100 retired bishops. The conference meets twice a year.

    What power does the conference have?

    Less than you might think. It has issued reports on topics ranging from nuclear war to cloning, and the body takes votes on issues and policies, but it is not a legislative group. Votes taken by the conference cannot establish national policy that is binding on all dioceses. Binding national policy can only be established with Vatican approval.

    Less than you might think. It has issued reports on topics ranging from nuclear war to cloning, and the body takes votes on issues and policies, but it is not a legislative group. Votes taken by the conference cannot establish national policy that is binding on all dioceses. Binding national policy can only be established with Vatican approval.



    Past Sex Abuse
    What has been done about sex abuse in the Catholic church in the past?

    In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted five principles for dealing with abuse accusations. The principles said church officials must respond promptly to abuse allegations; remove priests if evidence supported the allegations and refer them to medical help; comply with all laws on reporting the incident; reach out to victims; and deal openly with the problem while respecting the privacy of those involved.

    Why wasn't that enough?

    Why wasn't that enough?

    The bishops conference issued the 1992 policy as recommendations for each diocese. But the bishops and archbishops who lead the nation's 194 dioceses were under no obligation to implement them. At this point, nearly all U.S. dioceses have adopted some formal sexual abuse policies, but they vary widely.

    Why didn't the Vatican get more involved?

    Why didn't the Vatican get more involved?

    Bishops and archbishops are the ultimate authorities in their dioceses. The Vatican usually avoids intruding on local matters. Some Vatican voices believe that the scandal's proportions have been exaggerated by church reformers and the media.

    Couldn't the pope have done something?

    Couldn't the pope have done something?

    The church is not run like a multinational corporation, and the pope does not function as the CEO. When the pope did intervene, it was after American bishops asked for the Vatican's guidance on how to proceed.



    Dallas Meeting
    What is on the agenda for the Dallas meeting?

    The only topic is "recommendations leading to a comprehensive response on the national level for handling cases of clergy sexual misconduct." The bishops had been expected to consider a pastoral plan for Hispanic Catholics and a proposal to allow for online giving to the various national collections administered by the conference. Those issues have been postponed until November.

    What will be the hardest issue to resolve?

    Many bishops, lay leaders and observers of Catholic life agree on this one: What should the church do with a priest who is accused today of a one-time sexual indiscretion with an older teenager decades ago? What if an investigation turns up no other evidence of abuse? What if that priest has apparently served well, other than the one incident?

    Many bishops, lay leaders and observers of Catholic life agree on this one: What should the church do with a priest who is accused today of a one-time sexual indiscretion with an older teenager decades ago? What if an investigation turns up no other evidence of abuse? What if that priest has apparently served well, other than the one incident?

    Some bishops and experts on abuse say that any act of sexual abuse with a minor should be cause for removal from ministry, no matter what it was or when it happened. They say that one-time offenders are very rare and that there's no way to guarantee there is not another silent victim. Others argue that years of subsequent appropriate behavior should count for something if the single victim and current parishioners are amenable.

    What will the bishops actually do?

    The conference leadership has made it clear that, as a minimum, they expect to approve the framework for a national policy that will include mandatory reporting of all future accusations of abuse to civil authorities. Any priest found guilty of abuse of minors in the future would be removed from ministry, most bishops have said. Some bishops have also said they would like to see increased lay involvement in determining what happens to accused priests. The exact details of how the policy would be administered may not be decided in Dallas. Questions that may be taken up in private include how to handle dissent in the church, what role homosexuality has played in the crisis and whether any bishops should resign for improperly responding to reports of abuse.

    The conference leadership has made it clear that, as a minimum, they expect to approve the framework for a national policy that will include mandatory reporting of all future accusations of abuse to civil authorities. Any priest found guilty of abuse of minors in the future would be removed from ministry, most bishops have said. Some bishops have also said they would like to see increased lay involvement in determining what happens to accused priests. The exact details of how the policy would be administered may not be decided in Dallas. Questions that may be taken up in private include how to handle dissent in the church, what role homosexuality has played in the crisis and whether any bishops should resign for improperly responding to reports of abuse.

    Will the meeting be open to the public?

    No, but the media will be allowed to witness some of the discussion. Some of the open sessions will be broadcast on cable news. Parts of the meeting will happen behind closed doors.



    Vatican Involvement
    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.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.

    Have Vatican officials weighed in on the current crisis?

    Pope John Paul II called the top American Catholic leaders to the Vatican in April and declared that sexual abuse of children is both a sin and a crime. Separately, four well-known Vatican theologians have suggested that not all accusations of sexual abuse by a priest need to be reported to civil authorities. Some experts said that the comments were intended as a signal to the American bishops.

    What do the American bishops think of the Vatican theologians' comments, especially about reporting abuse to the police?

    Several bishops publicly rejected the comments. Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante is a member of the national Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. He dismissed the Vatican theologians' comments as a misunderstanding of the American legal system. His committee issued a draft policy on Tuesday that included a requirement that all allegations of sexual abuse be given to civil authorities. That policy is already state law in Texas.

    Several bishops publicly rejected the comments. Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante is a member of the national Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. He dismissed the Vatican theologians' comments as a misunderstanding of the American legal system. His committee issued a draft policy on Tuesday that included a requirement that all allegations of sexual abuse be given to civil authorities. That policy is already state law in Texas.



    Lay Opinion
    What do Catholic laypeople and others hope the bishops will do in Dallas?

    Of course, that depends on whom you ask. The wish list is long and varied, with suggestions ranging from a televised penitential prayer to an investigation of homosexuality in the priesthood.

    The Ad Hoc Committee issued its recommendations on Tuesday. It said that most priests who have abused minors should be defrocked, any allegation of sexual abuse of minors should be given to civil authorities and the church should provide counseling to abuse victims. The proposal leaves open the possibility that priests guilty of a single, long-ago case of abuse could continue in some kind of ministry.

    Many other individuals and groups, Catholic and otherwise, have offered suggestions for what the bishops should do. Here is a sampling:

  • Apologize and reach out to the victims
  • Automatically pass accusations along to civil authorities
  • Address homosexuality in the church
  • Take a stand against dissent in the church
  • Open the church management to laypeople
  • Make a public act of repentance during a televised prayer service
  • Defrock priests who fail to report abuse and rescind their pensions


  • Protests
    Will there be groups in Dallas protesting or commenting on the conference?

    Leaders of several groups, including Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Call to Action, Catholics for Free Choice, and Voice of the Faithful have said they plan to be in Dallas while the conference is going on. Events planned include a panel discussion about sexually predatory priests and a march to the hotel where the bishops will be meeting. A Texas atheist group, Metroplex Atheists, will also hold a demonstration outside the meeting to protest Catholic officials' handling of the current crisis.



    The Future
    What will happen after the conference?

    Individual bishops will be free to implement any policy agreed on in Dallas immediately in their own dioceses. Individual bishops will be free to implement any policy agreed on in Dallas immediately in their own dioceses.

    Any policy approved by the bishops will be sent to the Vatican for evaluation by several standing committees. Because the American Catholic leaders heard from the pope and other Vatican authorities in April, many Catholic experts say that the official evaluation is likely to be rapid.

    How much will the scandal cost the American church?

    Some reports say the settlements could top $1 billion.

    Is this just an American problem?

    Is this just an American problem?

    No. Pedophilia scandals have hit the Catholic Church in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, Mexico, and Poland. However, the phenomenon has gained far more attention in America. Non-Catholic churches and other faiths have also confronted this problem.

    Catholics in the U.S.
    How many Catholics and Catholic leaders are there in the U.S.?

    There are well over 63 million Catholics, making up about 23% of the U.S. population. There are 13 cardinals, 402 bishops, 46,041 priests, 4,917 seminarians, 5,565 brothers, and 79,462 sisters.



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