After two days marked by extraordinary speeches and fierce debate, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved a tougher policy on clergy sexual abuse (read excerpts). The bishops voted overwhelmingly to forbid pedophile priests from ever again acting as clerics, but stopped short of expelling them from the priesthood. While some welcome the new Charter as a "compassionate compromise," critics say the policy doesn't go far enough.

Plan Draws Fire From Victims' Groups Read the Full Charter

Deborah Caldwell's on-scene diary: The bishops didn't get it before. Do they now?

Overview "Deep Scars on My Soul": Victims Speak "We Have Failed": Wilton Gregory
"The Arrogance of Power": Scott Appleby

On-scene diary: "Angry, slit-eyed and still..."

The Issues
Zero Tolerance Lay Participation Prevention Ministry to Victims Full Disclosure Victims' Hearing

Zero Tolerance

According to the new rules, all offending priests would be removed from active ministry. In many cases, they would also undergo laicization (defrocking), which would rescind their pensions and other benefits. Elderly priests might be given the option of a "life of penance" in a restricted environment (like a monastery) rather than being defrocked.

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Note: On June 14, the U.S. bishops adopted a new Charter on sex abuse (read excerpts) which significantly altered several of the draft proposals below. Most importantly, the new rules would not allow a "one-strike" priest to return to ministry even after treatment and even if his new parish/institution were informed of his past.

What's on the table: The draft Charter calls for zero tolerance for future offenders and a two-strikes-you're-out policy for past offenders (with discretion based on effectiveness of treatment). Offending priests will be laicized (defrocked) and forbidden to celebrate the sacraments and perform other ministerial duties.
History: In the past, multiple offenders were transferred to other parishes within dioceses--and sometimes around the country and the world. Priests who had finished treatment and were "cured" were also moved around and continued to have access to young people.
Pros: Would send a message to priests--and the public--that there's no room in the priesthood for any kind of abuse.
Cons: A diverse collection of liberal and conservative Catholic groups think minor offenses should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Some argue that a zero-tolerance policy would deprive the church of priests who have truly reformed and would not allow for Christian mercy in less serious cases.
What to watch for: Will the bishops make distinctions involving the age of the victims and the severity of the behavior? For example, should inappropriate sexual remarks made to a 16-year-old be treated the same way as the molestation of a 10-year-old? Also: What should be done with abusive priests who cannot return to ministry? Send them to a monastery, as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has suggested? Or something else?

Next Issue: Sharing Power With the Laity

Note: On Friday, June 14, the U.S. bishops voted on and adopted the policy outlined in this new Charter.

Lay Participation

What's on the table: A lay review board to assess sexual abuse allegations and advise the bishop on whether the priest in question is fit for ministry. Board members would not be church employees.
History: In the past, bishops or their staff evaluated priests' fitness. While many bishops sought advice from psychologists, church members were rarely notified or consulted about the priests' history.
Pros: Church members will feel they have more control over which priests interact with their children and how the diocese handles sexual abuse.
Cons: Lay board members may not have the training or expertise necessary to judge difficult cases. Some believe lay involvement would encourage a "majority rules" mentality and undermine the authority of the church hierarchy.
What to watch for: How much power the bishops are willing to concede to the laity. Will the members of the parish have access to an incoming priest's personnel files, and have the right to veto assignments made by the bishop and his diocesan review board? The Charter only specifies that the "attitude of the community" must be taken into account.

Next Issue: Reaching Out to the Victims

Note: On Friday, June 14, the U.S. bishops voted on and adopted the policy outlined in this new Charter.

Treatment of Victims

What's on the table: Victims would be encouraged to report all offenses to the diocese through newly-created outreach offices. Dioceses would be required to offer counseling, support groups, and other services chosen by the victim. Victims would advise diocesan review boards about a priest's fitness for ministry. Victims could request confidentiality agreements but couldn't be asked to adhere to one.
History: In the past, churches offered little to victims of sexual abuse. Most went to outside groups, such as SNAP (Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests). Victims who reported abuse to their dioceses often found that their accusations were not followed up on or that their own credibility was called into question. When accusations did result in settlements, confidentiality agreements were the norm.
Pros: Victims may be more likely to reconcile with the Church, retaining their Catholic faith and their trust in Church leaders. Victims' personal insights would be valuable when diocesan review board are debating a priest's fitness.
Cons: A culture of great respect for the priesthood still pervades the Church, and victims may feel uncomfortable charging abuse to the diocese or accepting counseling referrals. Also, the new provisions might make it easier for false accusations to get a hearing.
What to watch for: Will church officials bring up limits on the size of lawsuit settlements or other money matters related to victims?

Next Issue: Full disclosure

Note: On Friday, June 14, the U.S. bishops adopted a new Charter on sex abuse which significantly alters several of the draft proposals below. Most importantly, the new rules would not allow a "one-strike" priest to return to ministry even after treatment and even if his new parish/institution were informed of his past.

Full Disclosure

What's on the table: The Charter would prohibit confidentiality agreements unless requested by the victim. It also calls for dioceses to report crimes to the police and to cooperate with law enforcement officials. In addition, a "one-strike" priest must be willing to accept public disclosure of his condition when returning to ministry after treatment.
History: In the past, some dioceses handled sexual abuse cases on their own--using church treatment centers--and did not report abusive priests to the police. Parishes receiving an accused priest were rarely informed of the priest's past. Confidentiality agreements were the norm when dioceses settled lawsuits with victims.
Pros: Churches and other groups would have more information when making decisions about incoming and outgoing priests.
Cons: Disclosing abuse details might violate victims' privacy; full disclosure might unfairly stigmatize priests whose cases are more complex. Also, some voices at the Vatican are not in favor of full disclosure, preferring that churches handle abuse cases privately. A recent Vatican journal article said that if a priest's past acts of abuse were revealed to his congregation, he "would be discredited... and blocked from any effective pastoral action."
What to watch for: Reformers may call for laity access to all personnel files and veto power in the transfer and assignment process.

Next Issue: Stopping sexual abuse before it happens

Note: On Friday, June 14, the U.S. bishops voted on and adopted the policy outlined in this new Charter.


What's on the table: The Charter calls for dioceses to establish "safe environment" programs. Dioceses would do background checks on all employees who have contact with young people. Bishops would provide full disclosure when transferring priests to other parishes, institutions, or dioceses. Seminaries will screen candidates for the clergy to "provide God's people with mature and holy priests."
History: In the past, screening procedures like background checks have not been uniformly required or enforced in all dioceses.
Pros: Adopting the policies would send a message that all people employed by the Church must behave appropriately with children.
Cons: Some fear seminaries would institute overly stringent admissions policies, further limiting the number of priests or discriminating against gay men. A strict "don't touch" climate in the Church may impede normal pastoral care of parishioners: For example, may a hospital chaplain hold the hand of a sick boy?
What to watch for: Calls by conservative groups or bishops to screen men with homosexual tendencies out of seminaries; calls by conservative Catholics for greater orthodoxy by priests and a united front on matters of sexual ethics, even those involving married couples.

Next Issue: Listening to the Victims During the Meeting

Victims' Hearing

NOTE: As of 1 pm E.T. on Thursday June 13, several victims had spoken to the bishops' conference. Speakers included David Clohessy, leader of SNAP (Survivors' Network of Those Abused By Priests).

What's on the table: Victims' groups have asked to speak to bishops during the Dallas meeting.
History: In one case, members of SNAP (Survivors' Network of Those Abused By Priests) were supposed to meet privately with bishops and cardinals on Wednesday and then address the entire body of bishops on Thursday. The bishops' conference revoked SNAP's invitation on Friday, June 7, after the group joined a class-action lawsuit against the conference and several dioceses.
Pros: A hearing might send a message to the laity and the media that the bishops care about individual victims. Listening to victims' stories might give bishops a better window onto the problem.
Cons: Public or private hearings could expose the bishops to behavior or speeches that might be inappropriately strident or off-topic. It could complicate the class-action lawsuits and distract the media's attention from the rest of the meeting's agenda.

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