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Plan on Abuse Is Said to Face Vatican Pitfalls

By Laurie Goodstein with Frank Bruni
From the New York Times

The sexual-abuse policy adopted by America's Roman Catholic bishops contradicts longstanding church laws and risks being substantially revised by the Vatican, according to a growing number of canon lawyers and church officials in Rome and the United States.

After studying the much-heralded new plan at church officials' behest, many of the lawyers say they are convinced the Vatican will demand fundamental changes, especially to the "zero tolerance" provisions that require all priests facing credible accusations of abuse to be removed immediately from ministry.

Some of the lawyers, echoed by some Vatican officials, said they believed that the American bishops, under intense pressure at their meeting in Dallas in June, devised a policy that was inflexible, disproportionate and too punitive to priests.

A senior Vatican official said that while no decisions on the policy had yet been made, the Vatican would probably respond to the bishops by letter around the second week of October. "The study of the letter is very serious," the official said. "The real topic of discussion is about how norms for one country fit in with canon law for the whole church."

Meanwhile, canon lawyers in many dioceses are advising their bishops to hold off on removing every past offender permanently from ministry until the Vatican responds. A survey of dioceses by The New York Times in July and August, in fact, found that while nearly three dozen bishops had suspended priests since the Dallas meeting, others said they could not act until the Holy See did.

Canon lawyers say if the Vatican rejects major measures, some priests who have already been permanently removed from ministry could make strong cases for reinstatement in church appeals courts.

Sister Sharon A. Euart, a canonical consultant and former associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "That's possible, if the review of the case by the Holy See determined either that the proper procedures had not been followed or the grounds for removal were not substantive."

The canon lawyers' most frequent criticisms of the American bishops' policy are that it denies due process to accused priests, ignores the statute of limitations in canon law, defines sexual abuse too broadly, and imposes the same harsh punishment —— permanent removal from ministry —— on every offender, regardless of the severity of the crime.

"A number of canonists I've talked to are very, very disturbed by it," said Msgr. Thomas J. Green, a professor of canon law at Catholic University of America. "It's the `one shoe fits every foot' kind of approach, and boy, I just think that's crazy. As I read our canonical tradition and what I teach our students is that that's just against our system. Our system has a sense of proportion, and the degree of restrictions on your ministry should be commensurate with the seriousness of the case they've got against you."

After months of unrelenting scandal, the American bishops passed their new sexual abuse policy on June 14 in Dallas with uncharacteristic haste. They debated amendments in the glare of television cameras, with Catholic laity protesting outside the hotel, and the painful stories of the victims of sexual abuse fresh in their ears. To prepare the revisions to the draft of the policy, bishops on the ad hoc committee on sexual abuse met some nights in Dallas until 2 a.m. and resumed at 6 a.m.

When the American bishops overwhelmingly approved the policy to strip every priest abuser of his collar and his ministry, many of them cited Pope John Paul II's declaration in April to the American cardinals in Rome: "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

At the conclusion of the Dallas meeting, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that while he expected the Vatican would approve the bishops' document, "I would never go to the Holy See assuming I have a slam dunk." He traveled to Rome after the meeting to deliver in person the bishops' new rules, known as norms.

Asked this week about the policy's prospects in the Vatican, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "I'm hearing that they're looking favorably upon it. Of course, the urge to edit is a basic human need, up there with the urge to eat and breathe, so it wouldn't surprise me if they make changes."

Some of the norms depart from the Code of Canon Law, the ecclesiastical law governing the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Church worldwide, last revised in 1983. Because of this, the American bishops needed the Holy See's approval, known as a recognitio, of the new norms. The American bishops asked that the norms be made "particular law," applicable only to dioceses in the United States.

But the Rev. Kevin E. McKenna, president of the Canon Law Society of America, said: "It will be difficult for the Holy See to make changes for one particular country without necessarily implying changes that could be adapted to other countries as well, because other countries are going to face these same issues. And then you would have two sets of operating procedures in terms of a penal process —— one for the U.S. and the other for outside the U.S."

At its meeting next month, the Canon Law Society of America, whose members work in the chanceries of many dioceses, plans to draft guidelines to help bishops distinguish between the American norms and the church's universal laws, Father McKenna said.

Sister Euart said that the Holy See had shown concern in the past about keeping church law on sexual abuse consistent from one country to another. In 1994, the American bishops asked the Holy See to extend the church's statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse. The Holy See granted the extension for the American church, and then in 1999 made the American standard apply to the entire church.

One salient problem with the American bishops' new policies, said several canon lawyers, is that there seems to be no statute of limitations at all. A priest who abused a child 30 years ago can be punished today.

Canon lawyers said another major area of concern was the lack of due process for accused priests. The norms say a priest should be removed on the basis of a "credible accusation" without clarifying what that is. Many priests have been removed from their ministries before a church trial or a full investigation.

Canon lawyers raise the specter of false accusations, though in the recent spate of priests suspended there has been only one definitive, reported case of that. Msgr. Michael Smith Foster, chief canonist in the Archdiocese of Boston, was formally exonerated after his accuser withdrew a lawsuit against him.

Another issue for many canonists is the penalty of removing every priest offender permanently from ministry. In one sign of how controversial that was with church officials, the American leaders of religious orders of men, at their meeting in August of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, pointedly refused to adopt the American bishops' policies, a decision that drew notice in Rome, the Vatican official said.

The answer from Rome is taking time because of summer vacations, and because five cardinals who head five Vatican offices, known as congregations, must all weigh in. They are Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Daríío Castrillóón Hoyos, Cardinal Eduardo Martíínez Somalo, and Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski.

When asked about the status of the Vatican's review of the policy, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman, would say only that what the Holy See was now doing was "to see the accordance of these norms with the universal laws of the church" and that the Holy See "is approaching the end of that study."