WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted yesterday to ask for the pope's permission to broaden and streamline procedures for dismissing a priest who has sexually abused a minor.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, chairman of the bishops' Canonical Affairs Committee, said the changes in ecclesiastical court rules were being sought because the Vatican turned down the U.S. hierarchy's request for authority to bypass the bulky judicial procedures entirely.
Vatican officials believed that allowing a local bishop to dismiss a priest administratively without recourse to the "hearings, lawyers and appeals" of the church courts would deny the accused his right to an adequate defense, Cardinal Bevilacqua explained.
If approved by the Vatican, the canonical revisions now requested would raise the maximum age of a minor in child abuse cases before the church from 16 to 18.
They also would limit an accused priest's statute-of-limitations defense in many cases.
In outlining the proposed revisions, Cardinal Bevilacqua said his committee was trying to broaden the application of church law to include cases in which a cleric's abuse was not reported by the young victim.
"The parents may have persuaded the child not to report the incident at all," the cardinal said.
If the Vatican agrees, the U.S. bishops would now be able to try a priest whose alleged sexual abuse is belatedly brought before their diocesan tribunals, and ultimately dismiss him, so long as the church's prosecution is begun before the victim's 23rd birthday.
It is anticipated that application of the new procedures will be rare, and used "only as a last resort," Cardinal Bevilacqua said.
In most cases, priests who are pedophiles will continue to be separated from the ministry at their own request following counseling, the cardinal said.
He also said that the subject of priests' sexual abuse of children "is taking an undue amount of our time and energy" during the bishops' annual meeting.
As if to reinforce this observation, another report on the subject yesterday was given the attention of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Speaking for the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, Bishop John F. Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., said that since the group was appointed by the conference in June, its volume of mail has made clear that clerical sexual abuse is causing "much anguish among our people."
No quick remedy
However, Bishop Kinney said, "our committee unfortunately cannot provide a quick remedy or a painkiller."
Saying that "we all know there are no fast, easy answers," Bishop Kinney described the purpose of his committee as devising "measured, deliberative and steady steps" toward giving local dioceses recommendations for their consideration and separate implementation.
In other business, the bishops, as expected, adopted lengthy documents on marriage and the family and on U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War period.
The former, written by a committee chaired by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, discusses the sanctity of marriage and urges husbands and wives to share household and parenting duties.
The foreign policy document warns against a rise in isolationism and says the United States has a moral responsibility to intervene militarily in conflicts such as those in the Balkans.
Written by a committee chaired by Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the document also renews the bishops' support for the ban on nuclear testing and calls for a halt to the sale of arms around the world.