BELLEVUE, Wash. — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday renewed their plan to prevent clergy sex abuse, making only minor revisions despite lapses in some dioceses that created pressure for more dramatic change.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 187-5 to approve the policy after a very brief public discussion during a national meeting in Bellevue. Four bishops abstained from voting.
Church leaders originally adopted the policy in 2002 as the molestation scandal erupted with the case of one predator priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, then spread nationwide and beyond. The centerpiece of the reforms is a promise by church leaders to permanently bar credibly accused clergy from any church work.
"If we're going to be honest with the victims and say we put them first, then we're not going to put priest-offenders first and that means we are going to take them out of ministry," said Bishop Blasé Cupich of Spokane, who serves as chairman of the bishops' child protection committee.
Victim advocates said they were disappointed that the bishops took no action during the meeting to improve compliance with the policy.
"I think I held out to the end, hoping that a few brave souls would begin to talk and events might snowball, and they would begin to see the opportunity they were facing," said Terry McKiernan of the advocacy group
BishopAccountability.org, which is creating a public database of all records related to the scandal.
The national policy came under new scrutiny in February, when a grand jury accused the Archdioceses of Philadelphia of keeping about three dozen credibly accused priests in ministry.
A high-ranking archdiocesan official who oversaw priests was also charged with child endangerment for allegedly transferring accused clergy among parishes. He is the first senior church official facing such a charge in the decades-long abuse scandal.
Then last month, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph acknowledged that he kept in ministry a priest who took pornographic pictures of girls in his parish. Finn also acknowledged he did not read a letter that a Catholic school principal wrote a year before the priest was arrested warning about the cleric's behavior.
In both cases, questions were raised about whether bishops took the cases to their local review boards, which church leaders created in each diocese to help them evaluate abuse claims. Following the grand jury report, Ana Maria Catanzaro, the head of the local Philadelphia review board, said her archdiocese had kept some cases from the board and had "failed miserably at being open and transparent." Observers, both inside and outside the church, wondered whether similar violations were occurring in other dioceses.
The vote Thursday keeps the child protection policy in effect for two years, when it will undergo another review.
Separately, bishops approved a statement explaining Catholic teaching against physician-assisted suicide, before ending the public sessions of their meeting.