Posted Friday, October 18, 2002
Anger, elation, confusion follow Vatican denial of U.S. bishops sex abuse policy
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
U.S. Catholics reacted with anger, elation and confusion following the Vatican denial of legal recognition to the sexual abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops at Dallas in June.
Citing confusion and ambiguity in the U.S. bishops document and conflicts between its proposed norms and those of the universal church, the Vatican Oct. 18 said the Dallas document will require more work.
Romes response came in the form of a one-page letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops.
The letter proposed the creation of a mixed commission between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops to resolve differences. Gregory swiftly accepted the offer in a one-paragraph reply.
In a press conference at the North American College, Gregory described the work to be done as modification, not recasting, and said he hoped the results will be ready for the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops in Washington, D.C., Nov. 11-14.
Early reaction suggested that activists for victims would be angered by the Vatican reaction, while priests groups are more favorable.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told NCR that the rejection amounts to a back track on zero tolerance.
Clohessy said his group also plans to protest the failure to include lay people, especially sexual abuse victims, on the mixed commission to work out the differences between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops. Its almost like, have they learned nothing? Clohessy said.
Fr. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, told the Associated Press the Vatican response is good news.
Itll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment, said Silva.
NCR first reported on the day of the Dallas vote, June 13, that the Vatican had serious reservations about the approach being taken by the U.S. bishops. NCR then reported Sept. 27, on the basis of interviews with Vatican sources, that the response to the norms would be negative.
The application of the policies adopted in Dallas can be the source of confusion and ambiguity, because the norms and charter contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church, Res letter reads.
Moreover, the experience of the last few months has shown that the terminology of these documents is at times vague or imprecise and therefore difficult to interpret.
Questions also remain concerning the concrete manner in which the procedures outlined in the norms and charter are to be applied in conjunction with the requirements of the Code of Canon Law and the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. That latter document, issued April 30, 2001, specified that all sex abuse accusations must be directed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can decide to take the case or remand it to the local level. The congregation has created tribunals to handle the work.
It is not immediately clear what impact the ruling will have on the canonical appeals already filed by some of the approximately 300 priests removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas norms. Gregory said these appeals will continue, but did not explain whether they will be adjudicated under existing canon law, the Dallas norms, or the eventual results of the work of the mixed commission.
The one-page letter from Re to Gregory does not cite specific problems in the norms. However, the basic conflicts between the Dallas norms and the Code of Canon Law are well known.
In his remarks at the press conference, Gregory, who said he was neither disappointed nor surprised by the Vatican response, cited three areas the mixed commission will have to address.
The first is the precise role and powers of lay review boards at the national and diocesan levels. Canon law indicates that the power to impose penalties on priests lies exclusively with his bishop or religious superior.
Second, Gregory cited the definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas documents. Vatican officials have long been concerned about the sweeping nature of this standard, which encompasses a wide range of physical and non-physical acts.
Finally, Gregory listed as a problem area the procedures to be employed when a priest is known to have abused a minor. Analysts regard that as a reference to due process issues, including the imposition of a penalty outside canon laws 10-year statute of limitations from the victims 18th birthday, as well as disregard of the principle that a priest cannot be removed from ministry without a trial.
Gregory said that the statute of limitations did not come up during his weeklong meetings with Vatican officials, but that it could come up in the mixed commission.
Canon law also guarantees confidentiality to the accused, a rule that is difficult to reconcile with actions by dioceses nationwide to publicize the names of priests flagged as alleged abusers. Canon law likewise treats removal from ministry as a penalty of last resort, but it is the only option permitted under the Dallas norms.
Res letter begins with a strong affirmation of the intent of the U.S. bishops to protect children and young people from sexual abuse.
The Holy See would like to convey full solidarity with the bishops of the United States in your firm condemnation for sexual misdeeds against minors, and is deeply concerned about the distressing situation that has arisen in recent months in the church in the United States, it said.
The sexual abuse of minors is particularly abhorrent. Deeply moved by the sufferings of the victims and their families, the Holy See supports the American bishops in their endeavor to respond firmly to the sexual misdeeds of the very small number of those who minister or labor in the service of the church.
The four Vatican offices that will be represented on the mixed commission proposed by Re are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, and the Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.
When a reported asked Gregory if having the work done by mid-November would be a miracle, he responded: Youre talking to a guy who believes in miracle.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCRs Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002
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