CHICAGO - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops renewed their pledge to remove sexually abusive clerics from ministry in a near-unanimous vote yesterday to accept a revised version of their policies regarding abuse.
The 235 bishops gathered for their semiannual conference also agreed to spend up to $1 million on a study to investigate the causes of the sexual abuse crisis and to require that potential priests live celibate lifestyles for at least two years before entering the seminary.
"I am convinced that we must leave this meeting with a clear, clear message that we are committed to the protection of young people," said Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, voicing a sentiment that was heard repeatedly on the floor.
The new versions of the two abuse policies, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms, will be binding for five years once the Vatican officially recognizes them.
The updated version says bishops will no longer have to forward every abuse case to Rome, and dioceses will no longer be subject to annual independent assessments of compliance with the rules.
Those changes prompted some critics to charge that the bishops were backing away from the commitments they made at their Dallas meeting in 2002 when, under intense public scrutiny, they adopted strict standards to handle abuse allegations.
"They have used every opportunity to backpedal. They're looking for ways to give bishops more wiggle room," said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
But the bishops voted to keep the central "zero tolerance" policy, which requires them to remove from ministry any cleric who commits an act of abuse. That policy remains controversial at the Vatican and among priests. Many bishops have said they would like eventually to regain discretion in dealing with abusive priests.
Only one bishop spoke against the policy, saying it destroys trust between the bishops and priests. "I'm not sure our priests really trust us," said Bishop Edward T. Hughes, a retired cleric from New Jersey. "Such lack of trust can be destructive of all our efforts."
In accepting an updated version of the seminary policies, the bishops agreed to require higher academic and personal standards from candidates for the priesthood. The standard of two years of celibacy marks the first time that the bishops have mandated that candidates be abstinent for a defined period before entering seminary.
The new standards come as seminary enrollment is at an all-time low in the United States. But Archbishop William J. Levada, the new prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the bishops have realized that many candidates have been sexually active and need a transition to a celibate lifestyle.
"Many bishops have come to a mature look at the ability of sexually active - heterosexually or homosexually active - people to change quickly," he said in an interview.
The study the bishops decided to partially fund is expected to cost $2 million to $4 million and take more than three years as independent researchers comb through the history of the abuse scandal. The bishops voted to allocate up to $1 million for the study, contingent on finding outside funding to pay for the rest.
The money would be well spent, said Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, "so we learn ... what has gone into making this problem so we can avoid it in the future."