The U.S. prelates hastened to downplay their differences with the Holy See over the policy they approved in June to stem the sex abuse crisis that has battered the Roman Catholic Church in America. Many said they would carry out the measures anyway. But the Vatican said Friday it could not give the plan its approval without significant changes. Reaching agreement may prove difficult.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Vatican was troubled by aspects of the U.S. church plan to permanently oust all known abusers from their ministries and even from the priesthood.
That goes right to the crux of the policy, as does the definition of sexual abuse, which is another trouble spot. To resolve matters, a special "mixed commission" with four U.S. bishops and representatives from four Vatican offices is being established. Gregory hopes the group will finish its work by the time all U.S. bishops assemble for a meeting Nov. 11. "We're dealing with basically a sound document that needs modification rather than recasting," Gregory said at a news conference in Rome, where he has been conferring with Vatican officials all week.
While generally supporting the U.S. bishops' efforts to stamp out clergy abuse of minors, the Vatican said the policy contained provisions that were "difficult to reconcile" with church law, were difficult to interpret and left open procedural questions that needed to be resolved. "For these reasons it has been judged appropriate that before the 'recognitio' (Vatican approval) can be granted, a further reflection on and revision of the `Norms' and the `Charter' are necessary," said the response, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. said he intends to keep implementing the policy. "We're in no way pulling back from what we were doing" to rid the clergy of abusers in his archdiocese, he said, and he expects bishops across the nation will do likewise.
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J. said the response "clearly states the Vatican's support" for the steps the American bishops have taken so far. And Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said Rome merely wants "to talk to us about clarifying a few of the details. ... What we have is an acceptance with a few qualifications."
But Chicagoan Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the church's attempt at reform was a failure. "Make no mistake about it: Rome's bureaucrats have rejected the weak measures bishops adopted in Dallas and our children are at risk as a result," she said, claiming that the Vatican had "gutted" the policy and "we're now back at square one."
Somewhere between the bishops and victims stood Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, chairman of the lay National Review Board that was appointed to monitor bishops' fidelity to the Dallas policy. He believes everything now depends on the new joint commission.
To meet Gregory's expectation, the commission would have to complete its work in about three weeks. The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America said that "would be very fast by Vatican standards," but not impossible. "It's not like they haven't been looking at this since June."
But Deal Hudson, lay editor of Crisis magazine, thinks the November deadline is unrealistic and that quick action would be a mistake. In his view, such haste caused the bishops to issue a flawed policy in the first place. Hudson is worried about the lay review boards appointed to advise local bishops on abuse cases, another disagreement with the Vatican that Gregory listed. The boards "could be abandoned or compromised" by the American-Vatican commission, Hudson fears, yet they are a vital confidence-building measure for rank-and-file Catholics.
The Rev. Kevin McKenna of Rochester, N.Y., an expert in church law who has sharply criticized the bishops' policy, was among many commentators who said the Vatican has reason to be concerned about the rights of accused priests.
For instance, the bishops' policy allows priests to be removed from their posts if a "credible" allegation is made against them. Some have attacked such measures as destroying clergymen's careers without allowing them to defend themselves. "Americans resonate with that," McKenna said.
U.S. church leaders approved the policy in a year when at least 300 of the nation's 46,000 priests have been removed from their ministries because of abuse claims, and bishops have been accused of allowing known molesters to move from parish to parish.
The bishops were looking to the Vatican to approve the policy and thereby boost the church leadership's tarnished credibility in the United States. While Rome turned them down for now, Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the bishops, argued it would be wrong to conclude that the bishops' policy was dead. "This is not the end of the game," Shaw said. "Everyone would like it to be overnight but it's too large and complex."