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In Rejecting Sex-Abuse Policy,
Rome Rejects Erosion of Authority

By Frank Bruni

News Analysis ROME, Oct. 19 During the months that Vatican officials pored over the American bishops' zero-tolerance policy on child sexual abuse, they found much that troubled them, including ways in which they felt that innocent priests might be sacrificed to runaway public suspicion.

They worried that priests were being denied legal safeguards that other people received and that the policy made no distinction between serious crime and stupid error.

But there was also something else that vexed them, an undercurrent to all their concerns and a key to understanding their resistance to grant the policy the formal Vatican approval that the American bishops had sought.

It was the way those bishops had, in the eyes of some Vatican officials, ceded their authority and discretion, replacing individual judgment with exacting prescriptions and opening the Roman Catholic Church to scrutiny, and censure, from laypeople outside its hierarchy.

That action, exemplified by the policy's creation of oversight groups filled with laypeople, challenged the church's view of itself as an institution not temporal but eternal, answering less to exigent circumstances than to longstanding tradition, and compelled to govern itself.

It set up an inevitable conflict between the United States and Rome. The American bishops were responding to the child sexual abuse crisis in an almost secular, political fashion: rewriting rules, confessing fault and acknowledging that they might need outsiders to keep them honest.

To some Vatican officials, that represented an astonishing departure from church custom and theology and a disturbing precedent.

"They're dealing with the matter as if they don't understand who they are," said one church official here, referring to the bishops. The official noted that bishops usually stand at somewhat of a remove from secular society, and that any correction they receive should come from the Vatican, not from laypeople.

"The question becomes: What will they do next?" the official said.

The Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., who teaches at a pontifical university here and has written for L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said, "Theologically, laypeople supervising bishops in exercising their hierarchical authority is entirely absent from church tradition."

That tradition does not cast bishops as corporate officers, their stations and legitimacy dependent on the efficacy of their performance. It casts them as disciples of Christ, with a divine charge, and many aspects of the zero-tolerance policy seemed to contradict that.

The policy obliged them to remove from active ministry any priest who had ever been a target of a credible accusation of child sexual abuse, taking away a bishop's ability to make determinations in particular circumstances. It compelled them to report any accusation of sexual abuse to law enforcement officials, again depriving them of discretion.

The policy also instructed every American diocese to appoint a review board, with a majority of laypeople, to hear and weigh accusations of sexual abuse and help bishops determine appropriate punishment. In addition, it created a national review board, composed entirely of laypeople, to monitor progress that bishops made in trying to rid the priesthood of sexual predators.

Thus, it was the American bishops themselves who built the lectern at which Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the head of the national board, stood as he publicly excoriated American church leaders for failing to act swiftly and decisively enough against abusive priests.

Mr. Keating went so far as to suggest that Catholic parishioners upset with their leaders withhold financial contributions to the church, saying Catholics were "stunned, sick, heartsick" by the failures of American church leaders to protect children from sexually abusive priests.

"That really bothered people here," said one Vatican official, adding that some Vatican officials had the sense of a public penance spinning out of control.

On Friday, the Vatican formally rejected the zero-tolerance policy, calling for a commission of American bishops, working with Vatican officials, to rewrite portions of it.

According to several Vatican officials, the portions most likely to be changed substantially are the broad definition of child sexual abuse and the bishops' removal of any statute of limitations.

As presented to the Vatican, the policy undercut the church's image of itself as an institution that gives guidance, rather than beseeching it, and as a source of moral authority, not an instantly flexible instrument responding to public pressure.

There was a clash of cultures in the actions of American bishops and the reactions of Vatican officials. With the zero-tolerance policy, the American bishops proposed sweeping, fundamental departures from established church law for a single country and an urgent situation.

But the Vatican sees itself as the guardian of a universal institution with established practices that transcend a given set of circumstances.

"Don't make the mistake of putting the outside world's logic on the church," said one Vatican official, adding that the Vatican has the sense that its laws "have a divine origin and a divine scope."

That does not mean Vatican officials deem the child sexual abuse crisis unimportant, nor does it mean that they are unwilling to devise or endorse some new measures to try to resolve it. They have done that several times over the last decade.

Indeed, some Vatican officials place much of the blame for what happened on Rome, saying American bishops might not have looked beyond the church for supervision had the Vatican been doing its job.

"The church is aware that it lost control over the last decade of its discipline," one Vatican official said.

But, the official said, the Vatican remained concerned about going too far in response to extraordinary circumstances in one country about making sweeping changes that could ripple through the world, in ways that might not be predictable. "The major concern and business of Rome is the universal church," the official said. "The concern for the universal church always prevails over a problem that is passing through it."