CHICAGO - A board set up by U.S. Catholic bishops to examine the church's sexual abuse crisis recommended a sweeping study yesterday to provide a better understanding of why priests abused minors.
Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor and former director of the Johns Hopkins psychiatry department, told the gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during a closed-door session that the research would take about three years and would include extensive interviews with victims and perpetrators.
"Some bishops will say, 'Why bring this all out and get people angry again?' They wonder if we're making things better by always bringing this up," McHugh said in an interview before the session. "What I'll say to them is that it must be done. In order to go forward, we have to learn from the past."
The agenda for the three-day meeting here was dominated by the abuse scandal.
The bishops spent yesterday considering revisions to their rules for handling abuse allegations. Many of them pledged to maintain the toughest elements, including the zero tolerance policy of removing from the ministry any cleric who committed a single act of abuse.
"No question, that's staying in," W. Francis Malooly, auxiliary bishop in Baltimore who helped draft the revisions, said after the bishops deliberated privately. "We've clarified things. I don't see a weakening of anything."
The bishops are expected to vote today on revisions of the two-year-old policy, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The documents, which were overdue for renewal, must then go to the Vatican to be recognized.
The updated version would allow bishops to use more discretion in sending an abuse case to the Vatican. At present, all cases must be sent to Rome for review and possible disciplinary action. Another change says all dioceses will no longer have to undergo an annual audit, but instead many will be able to assess their own compliance.
Such changes have prompted critics to say the bishops are purposely weakening the policy.
"They always say that," said Chicago's Cardinal Francis George. "The Charter is substantially as it was before."
Meanwhile, McHugh said the church needs to examine why the abuses occurred in the first place.
He is a member of the National Review Board, which the bishops created in 2002 to also oversee the implementation of their new policies. It's the same board that commissioned a landmark 2003 study on the prevalence of abuse, which found that more than 4,000 priests, or about 4 percent, were accused of abusing close to 10,000 minors in 1950 to 2002.
The new study, which would be performed by an independent body, would be more complex than its predecessor because it would attempt to explain the crimes, McHugh said.
"If we don't do this study," he said, "some one else will, and they might bring different biases to it."
The bishops are set to vote today on whether to spend $1 million on the study, which would cost $2 million to $4 million, with the expectation that the rest would be privately funded.
The bishops are hardly flush with cash. Because many dioceses are teetering on the financial edge because of abuse payments surpassing $1 billion, conference officials told the bishops that without budget adjustments, they can expect a $2.45 million budget shortfall in 2006.
The bishops are also scheduled to vote today on new guidelines for educating priests. The new guidelines call for more required theology coursework, because "of a lack of Catholic culture on the part of seminarians today," said Bishop John Nienstedt, the Minnesota cleric who heads the bishops' priest formation committee.
The bishops had been prepared to debate another new provision - that candidates for priesthood be required to remain celibate for a period of time before they enter seminary. But Nienstedt said Vatican officials asked him to remove that section from the guidelines because the Holy See will soon deliver a statement on sexuality - specifically homosexuality - and seminary admittance that would override it.
Currently there is wide latitude about admitting homosexuals into seminaries. For the most part, gay men who have not been sexually active are admitted.
In citing the need for the abuse study, McHugh said some Catholics have blamed gay priests for the crisis. "But we don't know that. We don't know if being homosexual has anything to do with it," he said. "We don't know what caused it."