Originally created 11/18/02

Abuse policy weakened



Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they're doing.

U.S. Catholic bishops met last week for the second time since June hoping to finally end 10 months of scandal in the Catholic Church over widespread revelations that some priests sexually abused minors and, what's worse, had been sheltered by some church leaders from exposure and prosecution.

To their credit, in their first meeting the bishops wrote a policy that required each diocese to report allegations of abuse of a minor to law enforcement authorities. They also approved a "zero tolerance" rule, mandating removal of priests found to have ever molested children.

Critics claimed the new rules failed to hold bishops accountable for concealing the crimes of their subordinates.

However, the Vatican rejected the June document, saying it violated the due-process rights of priests and the authority of universal church law. There was also concern that the rules did not allow for the theology of repentance, forgiveness and redemption. So the U.S. bishops met again, with the help of Vatican advisers, and hammered out a revised document.

The revised policy likely will be accepted by the Vatican, but it is doubtful the new rules will calm the turmoil in the American church, particularly in two areas.

First, the policy still does not hold church hierarchy accountable for protecting abusive priests. Under church law, bishops are answerable only to the pope.

Second, a change in the wording of one part of the policy removes a commitment by bishops that they will report allegations of abuse to civil authorities, while another part retains that requirement. That ambiguity, along with the rule requiring a confidential, preliminary inquiry by bishops when a claim of abuse is made, provides a big loophole for the protection of accused priests.

The problem for the American Catholic Church is that despite Rome's old-world, traditional insistence on hierarchical control, the American tradition demands transparency for leadership and holds that no person is above civil law.

The church is not a democracy, and is entitled not to be. However, when parents begin to feel their children are in danger because the hierarchy may be protecting abusive priests, they will leave the church. A shower of lawsuits is likely to follow, further damaging the church and its important mission to the world.

Forgiveness and redemption is the church's business. But, in the United States, at least, church leaders are all subject to civil law. The decision to prosecute or not to prosecute a priest accused of child abuse must be made openly by civil authorities, not in secret in a bishop's chambers. That would be an obstruction of justice.

And that would be a sin.