American Roman Catholic bishops' new draft of their sex-abuse policy was quickly branded by victims' advocates as a cumbersome, secretive rollback from the sweeping changes approved at a historic summit this year.
The draft, released Monday, is a revised version of the abuse policy that bishops endorsed in Dallas in June. The Vatican had misgivings about the Dallas proposal, saying elements conflicted with universal church law.
Bishops will vote on the changes at their Nov. 11-14 meeting in Washington. If they are approved, as many church leaders expect, the text will then go to the Vatican for final review. After that, the rules would be binding for all U.S. bishops and dioceses.
Priests said the changes would ensure due process for the accused, but advocates were skeptical.
Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a victims' group, said the revisions would allow the kind of secrecy that "perpetuated and fostered the abuse."
Like a version of the proposal approved in June, the new version said priests or deacons would be permanently removed from the ministry for "even a single act of sexual abuse."
The most significant changes to the Dallas policy involve the process by which bishops would investigate allegations against priests and church tribunals would hear the allegations.
In the Dallas version, a "credible allegation" required that an accused priest be temporarily removed from his ministry, followed by an investigation. If a priest was found guilty he would be permanently removed from all public ministry.
Under the revised policy, allegations would trigger a "preliminary investigation," during which an accused priest would remain in place. The policy said his reputation would be protected during the investigation.
David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the revision would prevent congregations from learning about allegations against priests and "enable abusive priests to remain in ministry, and unidentified, longer."
Archibald said review boards would operate in a "confidential" manner, and complained that the revision deleted a Dallas requirement that victims be kept informed about cases.
The new proposal was praised by the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the 27,000-member National Federation of Priests' Councils. He called it "a good, strong and, I think, effective policy that protects our children but also is clear about due process and rights" for accused clergy.
The proposal said that if "sufficient evidence" of abuse is uncovered, the Vatican would immediately be informed and the priest would be placed on administrative leave.
Rome could handle the case itself if "special circumstances" exist, but in most instances would send the matter back to the bishop for a local church trial. An accused priest would retain the right to appeal a verdict to the Vatican.
The new plan puts back in place church law's statue of limitations, requiring that victims file complaints by age 28. It also says, however, the Vatican can waive that rule for "appropriate pastoral reasons."
The group Survivors Network objected that the new version of the policy would require that bishops comply with local laws on abuse reporting. Under the Dallas plan, they would have been required to refer any credible abuse complaints to police.
"They've gone from promising to report any allegations to the bare minimum of reporting when they absolutely have to," Clohessy said.
The revisions are less specific about the functions of the review boards, which "may include" advice on cases and policy instead of requiring their involvement. Also, the rule that a board regularly review each bishop's abuse policy was deleted.
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