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Revised Policy Sets Tribunals for Priests Accused of Abuse

In the New York Times

A panel of Vatican officials and American Catholic leaders will ask bishops to create church tribunals for priests accused of sexually abusing minors, changing a policy adopted in June to add several steps before a priest can be permanently removed from the ministry, a panel member said yesterday.

The official, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said in an interview that the tribunals were one of the measures approved by the panel this week in Rome in an effort to satisfy Vatican objections to the zero-tolerance policy that American bishops approved in June in Dallas.

Last month, the Vatican refused to accept the policy. Critics said it contradicted canon law and did not give accused priests due process. The eight church leaders on the panel, accompanied by church and civil lawyers, rewrote the policy in 10 hours of meetings at the Vatican. Bishop Lori made the details of the changes available yesterday.

Under the revised plan, the bishop said, bishops would still retain the discretion to ban permanently from ministry any priests they do not trust around children. Even if an accused priest prevails in his church trials, the policy would permit a prelate to invoke his administrative power to strip a suspected molester of his ministry.

Establishing church tribunals is highly likely to cause delays in deciding the futures of many priests suspended from ministry in the past 10 months because of abuse accusations. Many dioceses have church tribunals capable of handling just matters like marriage annulments, and not penal cases. Other dioceses have no tribunals at all and no canon lawyers to work on them.

The revised rules would be mandatory for all American dioceses if the American bishops approve them at their meeting from Nov. 11 to Nov. 14 in Washington and the Vatican grants the policy full recognition.

Victims' advocates said they regarded the revisions as a major overhaul of the Dallas policy and expressed skepticism that priests sitting on tribunals would impartially judge fellow priests.

"We've gone from a system in which one cleric, the bishop, made the decision to a system in which multiple clerics will make the decision, which further minimizes the already very limited role of laypeople," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "This will only complicate and delay the removal of abusive priests and increase the despair of survivors and the disillusionment of American Catholics."

Bishop Lori and other church leaders knowledgeable about the revisions insisted that the panel made just minor changes and succeeded in preserving the American bishops' commitment to sweep all abusers from the priesthood.

"The commitment we made in Dallas is that any priest who has abused a young person, a child or a minor, will be permanently removed from ministry," Bishop Lori said. "That all-important commitment is intact. In fact, I would be willing to argue that the revised norms strengthen our commitment in several ways."

It will not become clear until the tribunals begin issuing decisions whether the revision is a retreat from the zero-tolerance policy endorsed in Dallas.

The eight church leaders in Rome preserved intact some elements of the Dallas policy that Vatican officials had previously suggested would require revision. The definition of what constitutes sexual abuse remained broad, including cases with no direct physical contact between abuser and victim. The panel also retained the lay review boards set up to help the bishops evaluate allegations of sex abuse, but made clear that the role of the boards would be merely advisory.

The rules specify that at least five members of an unspecified total on the review boards would be Catholic and that one other member would be a priest with experience as a pastor.

The main work of the joint commission was to clarify the judging and removal of accused priests, a process left murky in the Dallas policy. That policy was written in haste under pressure from Catholics who clamored for the bishops to act to stem the crisis.

Bishop Lori said that under the revised policy an accused priest would be immediately suspended from his ministry if a brief preliminary inquiry suggested that the allegations were credible.

The case would be forwarded to an important Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which promulgated rules last year, before the sex abuse scandal fully emerged. The office declared that all cases of child sex abuse in the church worldwide had to be referred to it.

That office, Bishop Lori said, might retain the case for hearings in Rome in rare cases that involve particularly egregious abuse or multiple dioceses. Most of the time, the Vatican would return the cases to the United States for church tribunals. If a priest is found guilty, he could appeal to the Vatican.