The bishops are meeting for four days, and are expected later in the week to approve the latest version of their rules for handling molestation claims against priests. Gregory said that critics hope to capitalize on the church's year of scandal to undermine Catholic teaching, and he urged bishops to challenge them. He also asked bishops not to allow the sex abuse crisis to fracture their relationships with each other. "Whatever the differences we have experienced with one another this year, it is essential to our life in Christ that we address them appropriately and reconcile fully with one another," he said.
The bishops approved a disciplinary plan when they last met five months ago in Texas. The policy before the group now is a revision negotiated with the Vatican that protects priests' rights and underscores that bishops, not lay people, have the authority to oversee clergy.
Victims' advocates argue the new plan will be cumbersome and secretive. Although they were allowed to address the bishops in Dallas, they have no such public role at this meeting, even though they said they requested one. "We are calling on America's bishops to strengthen, not weaken, the promises they made in Dallas," said David Cerulli, a member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Whatever plan is adopted this week will stand for at least two years if it wins Vatican approval to make it church law in America. Many prelates expect completion of the policy will ease public pressure for reform.
On Monday afternoon, representatives of the committee which drafted the plan and another panel formed to enforce the policy were to provide updates on their work. Later in the week, bishops will vote on a spending plan that would allocate nearly $1 million in each of the next two years for addressing abuse. The budget proposal also notes that the bishops conference has spent more than $1 million this year on the crisis.
Victims' advocates plan a candlelight vigil and news conferences to exert some influence over the debate, but their ability to win changes in the plan is limited. One group also planned to release a database of more than 600 accused priests.
The National Review Board, chosen by the bishops to ensure dioceses are meeting the new disciplinary standards also was meeting Monday, but only the bishops can set policy.
The plan being considered by the bishops calls for church tribunals to hear the cases of clerics who maintain their innocence in the face of abuse allegations and preliminary investigations that bishops will conduct privately to protect the reputation of the accused. The original policy gave bishops authority to oust guilty priests more swiftly.
The revisions also reinstate the church's statute of limitations on bringing complaints. The alleged victim must come forward by age 28, but bishops still can ask the Vatican for a waiver in special cases.
Leaders of the group Voice of the Faithful, which claims 25,000 members, also are in Washington to urge the bishops to restore the power of lay review boards to monitor abuse cases. Under the revised plan, the boards are advisory only.