With financial settlements in the church's sexual abuse scandal costing more than $1 billion, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are expected this week to retain their zero tolerance policy - permanently dismissing priests from the ministry for any act of abuse against children.
But as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' semiannual meeting begins today in Chicago, the bishops will consider revising other policies enacted after the scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.
"The revisions make it clearer and, wherever possible, stronger," said Bishop W. Francis Malooly, the Baltimore Archdiocese auxiliary bishop who helped draft the revisions.
However, not all agree. The revisions have triggered criticism from lay groups and victims advocates, many of whom plan to protest in Chicago.
"It's saying we can go back to the ways of the past when we trusted the bishops to tell us what they're doing to protect children. Well, we tried that," said Suzanne Morse, spokeswoman for the national lay group Voice of the Faithful. "It's backsliding by the bishops."
Meanwhile, Vatican officials and some in the clergy have had reservations about the rigid guidelines - called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People - since they were adopted in 2002. An independent report released by the Vatican last year criticized the charter's zero tolerance policy, calling it an overreaction and counterproductive.
Some priests are angry that the bishops are not considering revisions that would create more flexibility in reviewing accusations and delivering punishment.
The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils, said some priests have been unfairly treated by the zero tolerance policy. A case-by-case review, he said, would allow bishops to consider a priest's record and the level of his offense.
Silva said one hope among priests is that the bishops approve a suggested revision in one section that would say an accused cleric "enjoys the presumption of innocence" during the investigation.
Silva acknowledged that the crisis has created a new reality for priests and that most understand the need to rebuild trust with their parishioners.
Dioceses in Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Spokane, Wash., are in bankruptcy because of settlement payments. Officials in Boston are closing parishes and schools in the face of mass protest.
Baltimore adopted a policy last year against negotiating settlements with victims, which has limited the financial fallout locally.
Up until last year, the archdiocese had paid $4.5 million to victims, including past settlements and current therapy fees for victims. Victims advocates are critical of the archdiocese's financial policy, especially since the state statue of limitations is one of the most restrictive in the country. Victims who come forward after the statute of limitations on civil suits runs out have no recourse for compensation.
Otherwise, Baltimore has in some ways been one of the most aggressive dioceses in responding to the abuse crisis, often going further than the mandated policies.
Cardinal William H. Keeler publicized the names of accused clergy. It's a policy praised by victims advocates but one that causes friction with some clergy members.
"We want to do as much as we can," said Keeler, who supports the planned revisions but will not attend the conference. "We as a Church have made a huge commitment, and we're going to follow through on that."
Zero tolerance policy on sex abuse is on agenda for Catholic bishops
U.S. clerics convene in Chicago on changes
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