WASHINGTON--Just about everybody buzzing around the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week-including the prelates--is struggling to understand the murky phrasing of a set of rules to deal with sexual abuse by priests. What does "shall exercise" mean? How about "if the case so warrants"? What's a "prescription" versus a "derogation"?

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:

  • One strike, you're out. The revised policy will remove from ministry any priest guilty of even one instance of sexual abuse. "We have not backed off that," said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., a member of both the American bishops' sexual abuse committee and the latest committee to revise the policy.
  • 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.

  • Lay involvement in fighting clergy abuse. The Dallas policy commanded each diocese to put in place a lay review board "whose functions include the assessment of [abuse] allegations...[and] the recommendation concerning fitness for ministry."
  • 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.

    Victims' groups are unhappy with the new description of the boards as "confidential" and say the revisions take away any real power they might have wielded. "For lay people to have limited participation is an outrage," says Buddy Cotton, the New Jersey chapter head of the Survivors' Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

    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 and American civil law. The revised norms "remind us that bishops are not exempt from civil law--you don't handle everything in-house," says Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas. At the same time, the revised norms are more specific about how church law handles accused priests. The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said the revisions "did what we wanted them to do. It's a stronger document now than the Dallas one because the Dallas one was outside canon law." Bishops said that the revised norms simply clarified what was already part of the Dallas policy: that, alongside civil investigations and trials, a church investigation and trial would also take place.
  • 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."

  • Statute of limitations. Many people considered the Dallas norms unclear on this point, because the Dallas norms stipulated no statute of limitations for abuse cases-at the same time, however, they said investigations must be carried out "in accordance with canon law."