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.