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Catholic Bishops Unveil
New Policy on Accusations of Abuse

By Laurie Goodstein
In the New York Times

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops released their revised policy yesterday on sexual abuse by the clergy, and church leaders said they expected that it would be ratified by the bishops next week in Washington and then given Vatican approval.

The revisions were applauded by clergymen and canon lawyers who say they will protect the rights of accused priests. But they were denounced by victims' advocates who fear they will allow molesters to remain in the ministry and will let the church keep accusations secret.

The revised policy, like the one passed by the American bishops last June in Dallas, restates that any priest or deacon who has committed "even a single act of sexual abuse" will be removed permanently from the ministry. But the new policy spells out how clergymen will be able to contest accusations in church courts and at the Vatican.

The new rules were drafted last week by a commission of American and Vatican leaders whose task was to iron out the conflicts between the "zero tolerance" policy passed in Dallas, and canon laws, which have detailed procedures for trying priests accused of crimes.

As victims' advocates reacted to the document yesterday with feelings of betrayal and even grief, bishops said they saw it as an improvement on the work they did in Dallas and the church's best hope for beginning to resolve the sexual abuse scandal that has dominated the Catholic church since January.

Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., one of four American bishops who met with the Vatican officials last week in Rome, said, "I think there's a tremendous relief that the Holy See was empathetic and indeed sympathetic to the goal of the bishops in Dallas, which was the protection of children and young people."

As the document circulated yesterday, canon lawyers described how the procedure would have to work if it is to conform to church law.

Priests would be presumed innocent and brought before church tribunals made up of priests trained in canon law. Under canon law, the lawyers said, tribunal hearings are not public, and the accusers would probably not be allowed to attend. Victims would be represented in the hearing by a priest who serves as prosecutor, known in church parlance as the "promoter of justice."

Under the revised policy, bishops would also have sexual abuse review boards made up of at least five lay Catholics and one priest. But the new draft emphasizes that such a board would be a "confidential consultative body" whose role is "advising the bishop in assessing allegations of sexual abuse and in determining whether the priest is suitable for ministry."

Victims' advocates and church reform groups like Voice of the Faithful criticized the revised policy for diluting the influence of the lay review boards called for under the Dallas plan by shifting power to the secret tribunals made up of clerics. Susan Archibald, president of the Linkup, a support group for victims, said: "The thing that really disturbs me the most is that this is a return to secrecy. It is really the same philosophy that perpetuated the abuse we have seen for the past couple of decades."

Associations of priests and canon lawyers had criticized the Dallas policies for giving bishops too much power to suspend priests without due process. Yesterday, members of those groups said they saw this revision as a major improvement.

Msgr. William A. Varvaro, a canon lawyer and priest at St. Margaret Church in Queens, denounced the Dallas rules last month at a meeting of priests in New York City.

"At least now I think there's some uniformity in what has to happen if a priest is accused," he said yesterday. "That's what due process is." Monsignor Varvaro and other clergymen expressed confidence in the abilities of tribunal members to judge the cases impartially.

Msgr. John A. Renken, vicar general and judicial vicar in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., said: "There are good and fair priests who can make good and fair decisions, and I believe that's the sort of men that should be making these decisions. No one wants this to be a kangaroo system."

The new policy also gives more control to the Vatican, mandating that American bishops comply with rules set out last year that directed all sexual abuse cases to be forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. That office has the power to decide whether to lift the statute of limitations, which extends until the accuser is 28. In some more complicated or egregious cases, that office may retain the case of an accused American priest for trial at the Vatican.

One canon lawyer in Rome who has advised Vatican officials on the policy, but who spoke on condition he not be named, said yesterday that the revisions would simply force the American bishops to follow church procedures.

"The church is simply reaffirming what bishops should have done in the first place," the lawyer said. "The rest is just playing with words. Bishops didn't do what they should have done back then, and now they're saying, you have to do it. And this time, they might, because the faithful, the people in the pews, are going to be watching."