DALLAS - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops adopted a national policy yesterday to remove from ministry any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor, acknowledging in anguished debate that with the eyes of the world on them they could no longer offer any protection to predator priests.
The decision means that any priest known to have ever abused a child, no matter how long ago, may no longer serve as a pastor or chaplain at a Catholic parish, school, hospital, or nursing home. They may retain the title of priest, but they will no longer be allowed to dress in clerical garb or to celebrate Mass anywhere but in private.
The bishops backed off a previous stance of zero tolerance that would have taken the more punitive step of asking the Pope to defrock - or reduce to layman's status - every egregious and multiple offender.
Defrocking can be a cumbersome process taking years in Vatican courts, and the compromise will leave bishops free to decide whether to pursue this measure on a case-by-case basis.
The bishops also committed themselves to turning over all allegations of sexual abuse against a minor to civil authorities. Despite strong objections from some bishops, the conference adopted a broad definition of sexual abuse to include situations that did not involve force or direct physical contact, but that were nevertheless abusive.
“From this day forward,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States. We bishops apologized to anyone harmed by one of our priests, and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse.”
It is unclear how the decisions of the U.S. bishops will be received in the Vatican, although the bishops seemed cautiously optimistic that they will be endorsed. A Vatican spokesman said there would be no reaction to the decisions in Dallas until officials had the opportunity to examine them carefully.
In addition to the policy changes, Bishop Gregory announced the formation of an outside review board, led by Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, to help monitor compliance.
The sexual abuse policy, formally called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was approved by the bishops with a secret ballot, with 239 voting for it, 13 voting against, and 32 abstaining.
Despite the lopsided vote, a significant number of prelates had taken to the microphones as the policy was debated to argue passionately against the zero-tolerance approach, against the broader definition of sexual abuse, and against turning over all allegations to the authorities.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany rallied a last-ditch challenge to the provision barring abusers from the ministry, arguing that the New York state legislators who passed the one-size-fits-all penalties for drug traffickers known as the Rockefeller drug laws later discovered that such measures often harmed more than they helped.
Just before they voted, Cardinal Avery Dulles moved to the microphone.
A theologian at Fordham University elevated to cardinal by the Pope, Cardinal Dulles had no vote, but wielded tremendous influence.
The bishops' document “puts a very adversarial relationship between the bishop and the priest,” Cardinal Dulles said.
“The priest can no longer go to his bishop in confidence with a problem that he has. He has to be very careful what he says to the bishop because the bishop can throw him out of the ministry for his entire life.”
Many questions remain about whether the Vatican will support the bishops' new measures. The committee of bishops drafting the policy called the charter a “pastoral document” and would be mandatory for all dioceses to follow. But the bishops do not plan to submit the charter to the Vatican for approval, said Bishop Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas and a committee member.
The bishops approved a second document of “norms” that will be submitted to the Vatican for approval.
The norms include requests for changes in church law that will be needed for the U.S. bishops to enact their new policies. Many deal with accelerating the process for removing a priest.
Many bishops cited Pope John Paul II's statement in April that no abusers ought to be allowed to serve in the priesthood.
But as Bishop Gregory said about Vatican approval, ``I would never go to the Holy See assuming I have a slam dunk.''