The Editors

The charter approved by the bishops at their spring meeting in Dallas on June 13-15 provides for zero tolerance: No priest who has abused a minor in the past, present or future will be allowed to act as a priest againno public Masses, no working in parishes or any other priestly ministry and no wearing of clerical attire. He is permanently removed from the position of respect and power that allowed him to abuse. In terms of removing a priest from ministry, this is stronger than the first draft released before the Dallas meeting, which provided a potential loophole for one-time offenders. That exemption is gone. In addition, allegations of abuse of a minor will be reported to the police.

Unlike the first draft, the final text of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People does not require the forced laicization, or defrocking, of all sexual abusers, although the bishop may initiate a laicization process if he decides that is necessary. There are four reasons why the bishops decided against mandatory laicization of all abusers: 1) The laicization process is difficult and time-consuming if the priest fights it (if he accepts it, laicization can be quick). 2) Forced laicization is one of the items the Vatican was most concerned about; this makes the document more palatable to the Vatican. 3) The bishops did not want to laicize forcibly old, retired or infirm priests who are living in priests’ retirement homes. Were they supposed to wheel them out on the sidewalk and abandon them? 4) Some people have argued that it would be dangerous for the community if the church simply kicked the priests out and washed its hands of them, because they would then be on the loose and therefore more dangerous to minors. It is better for society if those priests are kept under supervision, retired to special facilities where they can be watched, medicated if necessary and kept away from minors. If the priest refuses to cooperate with such a regimen he can still be laicized. In short, this document believes that prevention is more important than punishment.

The charter does not punish those bishops who moved criminal priests from parish to parish and thus made it possible for the priests to abuse again and again. Unfortunately, the conference does not have the authority to remove bishops. Only the pope can demand that a bishop resign. During the executive session some bishops stated that some bishops should resign, but no names were specified.

The charter puts in place accountability procedures for the future. There will be independent review boards at the diocesan, regional and national levels, and every year there is to be a public report on how each bishop has implemented the charter. If a bishop ignores the program or only partially implements it, everyone will know. The media and the people in his diocese will hold him accountable. He will be subject to tremendous pressure from the laity (who can withhold donations, protest, etc.), the media and his brother bishops.

It is true that the charter is not mandatory or legally binding on a bishop unless the Vatican approves the norms, but every bishop can voluntarily implement it immediately (this will be easier, since imposing laicization is not required). Only 13 bishops voted against the charter. If they do not implement it, we will hear about it. Public reporting is more important than having the charter mandatory. Vatican decrees (like those forbidding women from giving homilies) are sometimes ignored by bishops. The difference between the charter and the voluntary guidelines issued 10 years ago is that this time the public will know which bishops do not implement the charter. Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chair of the drafting committee, compares this to a financial audit.

This bishops’ meeting was unique in the frank confession of wrongdoing by the bishops. We are the ones, conference president Bishop Wilton Gregory said repeatedly. And never before were angry critics of the bishops allowed to speak to all of the bishops with such frankness. Nor have the bishops and cardinals ever shown so little concern about what Vatican officials might think about their document. The bishops are convinced that they have done what is needed in the United States, and if necessary they will go over the heads of the Vatican officials to the pope. They believe they can convince the pope of the need for this charter, no matter what Vatican officials say.

The passage of the charter closes the first chapter of this ugly story of sexual abuse. Now the bishops must implement it. Permanently removing one-time offenders from ministry will be a hard sell to some of their priests and people. On the other hand, many people want all offenders thrown out of the priesthood. Restoring trust once it is lost is not easy. In order to regain the respect and affection of their people, the bishops need to bring the same transparency, accountability and lay involvement reflected in the charter to the making of other decisions in the church. Now that they have apologized, the bishops will need to spend much more time listening than speaking.

Comments

Thomas R. Jackson, M.D. | 6/25/2002 - 11:04am
I am a lay Catholic who is part of a the distinct minority who is ashamed of the Bishop's actions in Dallas. Yes, like everyone else in the country, I am very concerned about the problem of child abuse. I am a pediatrician and I have children of my own, and I won't take accusations that I am "unconcerned with the victims" or the larger problems. But I have absolutely no desire to be part of the "hangin' is to good for 'em" mob with their shouts of "zero tolerance." I recognize that "zero tolerance" is just a catchy slogan for injustice, and that is what happened in Dallas.

The bishops, recognizing a loss of their own good PR (and money) decided to put on a media show, complete with prancing out victims tales, all to sell the idea that they were doing something dramatic and decisive. What they decided to do, however, is ignore all principles of canon law and basic justice, and to throw away the rights of priests. Well, not all priests. For themselves, the bishops only felt a day of penance was in order. They will make sure that is well covered in the press so they can get credit where it counts.

The news reports are that the Vatican has grave reservations about "zero tolerance". It is good to hear that there is still some sense in the world, and maybe (only a faint hope) even some who will take the bishops to task for selling priests down the river to cover their own problems. When the bishops through away canon law to right their charter, they betrayed the Church. More importantly, they betrayed the Gospel which preaches forgiveness. They gave in to the worst in their flocks in order to preserve their own power and prestige. It was wrong. It was ugly. It was manipulative. The bishops knew it was wrong, but listened to their PR consultants in suits rather than their own conscious. Bravo for the 50 bishops who declined to join the mob, and especially the 13 who voted against. Shame on those who will join the stone throwers so they can look good to the mob. Dallas was the day that the American Bishops outlawed the Gospel.

Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 6/30/2002 - 10:12am
Tony Auth expressed it best in his pointed cartoon in The New York Times(June 6). Two fully vested bishops are shown: one holds his crozier with a screaming and kicking priest hanging from it. He turns to the other bishop with "COVER-UPS" across his chasuble, and snickers: "...AND, HAPPILY, WE'RE OFF THE HOOK."

I am disturbed, but not too surprised, by the words of Judge Antonin Scalia, R.C., with an ordained son,in his June 20 Supreme Court dissenting opinion (re the execution of a midly mentally retarded man): "The attitude of that body [the active Catholic bishops of the U.S.] regarding crime and punishment are so far from being representative, even of the views of Catholics, that they are currently the object of intense national and entirely ecumenical criticism."

Steve Bogner | 6/22/2002 - 7:18am
In March 2002 Archbishop Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said that as many as five priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have had substantial allegations of sexual misconduct with teens and are still serving in priestly roles, but are not in regular contact with children (Cincinnati Enquirer Mar 15 2002). The vagueness of the statement and the shock that these priests are still serving in 'priestly roles' was disturbing to many people.

I had hoped that the frankness and clarity of the new 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People' would bring some resolution to this situation. Now the Archbishop says the policy is tough, but 'We have to see whether the offenses of the past constitute child abuse under (the new policy)' and 'I think they are very much in the gray area' (Cincinnati Enquirer June 15 2002).

If the original allegations were credible enough to be 'substantial' and to remove them from 'regular contact' with children, how can that be so 'gray' that it's not child abuse? This back-pedaling approach of dancing around definitions only reinforces the public's mistrust of the Church's leadership. It does nothing to promote the sense of transparency and accountability that will rebuild the trust that has been lost.

Thomas R. Jackson, M.D. | 6/25/2002 - 11:04am
I am a lay Catholic who is part of a the distinct minority who is ashamed of the Bishop's actions in Dallas. Yes, like everyone else in the country, I am very concerned about the problem of child abuse. I am a pediatrician and I have children of my own, and I won't take accusations that I am "unconcerned with the victims" or the larger problems. But I have absolutely no desire to be part of the "hangin' is to good for 'em" mob with their shouts of "zero tolerance." I recognize that "zero tolerance" is just a catchy slogan for injustice, and that is what happened in Dallas.

The bishops, recognizing a loss of their own good PR (and money) decided to put on a media show, complete with prancing out victims tales, all to sell the idea that they were doing something dramatic and decisive. What they decided to do, however, is ignore all principles of canon law and basic justice, and to throw away the rights of priests. Well, not all priests. For themselves, the bishops only felt a day of penance was in order. They will make sure that is well covered in the press so they can get credit where it counts.

The news reports are that the Vatican has grave reservations about "zero tolerance". It is good to hear that there is still some sense in the world, and maybe (only a faint hope) even some who will take the bishops to task for selling priests down the river to cover their own problems. When the bishops through away canon law to right their charter, they betrayed the Church. More importantly, they betrayed the Gospel which preaches forgiveness. They gave in to the worst in their flocks in order to preserve their own power and prestige. It was wrong. It was ugly. It was manipulative. The bishops knew it was wrong, but listened to their PR consultants in suits rather than their own conscious. Bravo for the 50 bishops who declined to join the mob, and especially the 13 who voted against. Shame on those who will join the stone throwers so they can look good to the mob. Dallas was the day that the American Bishops outlawed the Gospel.

Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 6/30/2002 - 10:12am
Tony Auth expressed it best in his pointed cartoon in The New York Times(June 6). Two fully vested bishops are shown: one holds his crozier with a screaming and kicking priest hanging from it. He turns to the other bishop with "COVER-UPS" across his chasuble, and snickers: "...AND, HAPPILY, WE'RE OFF THE HOOK."

I am disturbed, but not too surprised, by the words of Judge Antonin Scalia, R.C., with an ordained son,in his June 20 Supreme Court dissenting opinion (re the execution of a midly mentally retarded man): "The attitude of that body [the active Catholic bishops of the U.S.] regarding crime and punishment are so far from being representative, even of the views of Catholics, that they are currently the object of intense national and entirely ecumenical criticism."

Steve Bogner | 6/22/2002 - 7:18am
In March 2002 Archbishop Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said that as many as five priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have had substantial allegations of sexual misconduct with teens and are still serving in priestly roles, but are not in regular contact with children (Cincinnati Enquirer Mar 15 2002). The vagueness of the statement and the shock that these priests are still serving in 'priestly roles' was disturbing to many people.

I had hoped that the frankness and clarity of the new 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People' would bring some resolution to this situation. Now the Archbishop says the policy is tough, but 'We have to see whether the offenses of the past constitute child abuse under (the new policy)' and 'I think they are very much in the gray area' (Cincinnati Enquirer June 15 2002).

If the original allegations were credible enough to be 'substantial' and to remove them from 'regular contact' with children, how can that be so 'gray' that it's not child abuse? This back-pedaling approach of dancing around definitions only reinforces the public's mistrust of the Church's leadership. It does nothing to promote the sense of transparency and accountability that will rebuild the trust that has been lost.

Recently in Editorials