Worked out in talks with the Vatican last week, U.S. bishops will vote on the changes at their Nov. 11-14 meeting in Washington. If approved, which seems likely, the text will then go to the Vatican for final review. After that, the rules would be binding for all U.S. bishops and dioceses.
The most significant changes involve the process after a priest is accused. That includes church tribunals to hear the cases of clerics who maintain their innocence and preliminary investigations that bishops will conduct privately.
The rewrite affects only rules that involve church law, leaving intact many aspects of the bishops' policy - or ``charter'' - approved last June in Dallas.
The new plan won immediate praise from the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Councils, which represents 27,000 of the nation's 46,000 clergy. He said ``it is a good, strong and, I think, effective policy that protects our children but also is clear about due process and rights for those who are the accused.''
But David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the changes ``will enable abusive priests to remain in ministry, and unidentified, longer.''
Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a victims' lobby, said the text is ``a return to secrecy,'' which ``perpetuated and fostered the abuse.''
In the June version, when a ``credible allegation'' was made, the priest was temporarily removed from his ministry, followed by an investigation. If guilt was admitted or established, the priest was removed permanently from church work - saying Mass, teaching at a Catholic school, even wearing a Roman collar.
Under the rewrite, an allegation triggers a ``preliminary investigation,'' during which the priest remains in place and his reputation is protected, apparently meaning parishioners are not notified about the accusation.
If ``sufficient evidence'' of abuse is uncovered, the Vatican would immediately be informed and the priest would be placed on administrative leave.
Rome could handle the case itself if ``special circumstances'' exist, but in most instances would send the matter back to the bishop for a local church trial. An accused priest would retain the standard right to appeal that verdict back to the Vatican.
As before, a cleric who admits abuse could request removal from the priesthood. A guilty priest could also be removed without consent, but only by the pope. In addition, the bishop has administrative power to remove an offending priest from active church work, though he technically remains in the priesthood.
The key section of the policy on removing abusers says: ``When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priests or deacon will be removed permanently'' from the ministry.
As bishops have noted in interviews about the revisions, the new plan puts back in place church law's statue of limitations, requiring that victims file complaints by age 28. It also says, however, the Vatican can waive that rule for ``appropriate pastoral reasons.''
Clohessy said his group objects to another provision, that all bishops must now comply with any local laws on abuse reporting. In the old version, prelates were to automatically report all credible abuse complaints to police.
``They've gone from promising to report any allegations to the bare minimum of reporting when they absolutely have to,'' Clohessy said.
The revision also has become less specific about the functions of the review boards, which ``may include'' advice on cases and policy instead of requiring their involvement. Also, the rule that a board regularly review each bishop's abuse policy was deleted.
As before, the U.S. bishops agree to review these rules two years after the Vatican gives final approval.