Vatican balks at policy on sex abuse

The Vatican has rejected at least part of a proposed policy on child sexual abuse adopted by the U.S. Catholic bishops in June because it conflicts with the rights of priests protected by church law, according to church sources.

Vatican officials are expected to announce today that they have refused to approve parts of the policy that infringe on the rights of priests to due process contained in the Code of Canon Law, the regulations that govern the billion-member Roman Catholic Church, according to reports by the Associated Press and The New York Times.

Pope John Paul II met with officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday in Rome and handed Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the conference, a two-page letter outlining his concerns, sources told the news outlets.

U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly during a June meeting in Dallas to approve a new policy, called a charter, that permanently removes from ministry clergy who have committed a single act of sexual abuse, no matter when it occurred, effectively eliminating a statute of limitations in canon law.

The new policy also forbade an offending clergy member to wear the Roman collar identifying him as a priest or to refer to himself as "father."

In addition to its belief that the zero-tolerance policy might lead to the removal of some priests without due process, the Vatican was concerned about the lack of a statute of limitations and the broad definition of child sexual abuse, according to the new reports.

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse immediately denounced the Vatican action.

"This is dangerous backsliding when what we need is real moral courage. Abusive priests will see this as a green light to deny their guilt, stay in ministry or fight to win their jobs back," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

The Rev. Gary Hayes, who was sexually abused by a priest as a youth, said he sympathized with the concerns of his fellow priests over their right to due process, but said the protection of children must come first.

"I wish they would cite some canons that tell us exactly what the rights of the abused children are," said Hayes, an executive board member of the Linkup, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse. "The rights of innocent children and parents and their families have been violated for years, decades. And so I'd like to hear my brother priests balance those kinds of comments by saying the bishops have trampled a lot of peoples' rights over the years."

Representatives of priests and Catholic laity welcomed a move that they said would produce a fairer policy.

The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, called the Vatican response "good news."

"It'll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment," said Silva, whose organization claims about half of the 46,000 U.S. priests as members.

Laity involvement

Michael Emerton, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, the Boston-based group that has demanded greater involvement of Catholic laity in dealing with the sexual abuse scandal, said that if the published reports are correct, the Vatican's concerns seem reasonable.

"At Voice of the Faithful, we stress that the proposed charter must protect the rights of priests as well as the rights of victims," Emerton said. "This decision today is going to place more pressure on the American bishops to work with the laity to establish an effective system for protection."

Cardinal William H. Keeler declined to comment on the news reports yesterday.

But a spokesman said Keeler remains committed to the policies the bishops approved in Dallas.

Since that meeting, Keeler has issued a policy requiring all church employees who come into contact with children to have criminal background checks, and calling for reference checks for church volunteers.

List of 56

Last month, Keeler released a list of 56 priests who have been accused of sexual abuse, along with details of the allegations against them.

Keeler's action was criticized by some priests, who complained that the list included clergy who disputed the allegations against them.

"We are still waiting to read the Vatican's decision regarding the norms. But none of the actions we have taken to date require approval from Rome," said Keeler spokesman Stephen J. Kearney. "The commitment the bishops made to each other in Dallas remains intact."

In the months since the charter was approved, canon lawyers have cautioned that parts of it conflict with church law.

Others complained that the zero tolerance policy left no room for the possibility of repentance and reconciliation by priests who might have committed a single offense years ago and successfully completed psychological treatment and who have since served without incident.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a national Catholic weekly, said he expects Vatican officials and the U.S. bishops to work out such issues.

"I have argued from the very beginning that the Vatican would give the bishops a yellow light - proceed with caution - not a red light or a green light," Reese said. "The Vatican is especially concerned about protecting the rights of the accused - here they are acting like the ACLU or the U.S. courts [have] in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's actions since 9/11.

"Just as the ACLU does not want to protect terrorists, neither does the Vatican want to protect sex abusers, but both are concerned about due process."

Curious response

The Vatican response is curious in light of an editorial published yesterday in La Civilta Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit biweekly considered a bellwether of official church sentiment because the Vatican's Secretariat of State reviews each issue before publication.

The unsigned editorial stated the bishops' policy on sexual abuse without criticism and repeated what the pope told the American cardinals in April when they met with him in an extraordinary summit: "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."