Vatican Response Leaves Catholic Sex-Abuse Crisis Unresolved

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Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Whether the faithful choose to read the glass as half-full or half-empty, the Vatican's negative response to proposals from U.S. Catholic Bishops on handling sexual abuse within the Church is unlikely to resolve the crisis. The Vatican on Friday declined to accept the "Dallas charter" adopted by U.S. bishops, which recommends a zero-tolerance policy that would remove from priestly duties any clergyman who had ever molested a minor, and also requires all sex-abuse charge to be reported to the police. Instead, the Vatican called for further study by a panel of eight clergymen — four appointed by Rome, four by the U.S. bishops — to reconcile their differing views on how to approach an issue that has sparked a crisis of confidence among the American faithful.

The Vatican's failure to endorse the Dallas proposals came as no surprise, and Notre Dame professor Scott Appleby, says that in light of previous differences between Rome and the U.S. bishops, the Vatican's response was actually more positive than had been expected. "Historically, the Vatican has been much more paternalistic," Appleby said. "There has been much more 'Here's what you're going to do.' "

Appleby noted that the Vatican did not reject the charter outright, which had been a very real possibility, and he remains hopeful it eventually will be Accepted and implemented nationally. "This is the church working," he explained. "It is unthinkable that the Vatican would not weigh in on this. The Vatican is requiring a period of reflection to focus in on the ragged edges of the policy that the bishops, under some pressure, formulated in Dallas."

But there may be more than just "ragged edges" on the chopping block when the commission begins its work in mid-November. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy — one of the four offices that will work with four U.S. bishops in the commission — said Friday that the American proposal steps on certain ''fundamental principles of the Church.'' Castrillon — speaking during an unrelated press conference Friday a — answered reporters' questions on the U.S. proposal. ''The trust that the priest has in his bishop, that can't be passed through the external conditioning of a state'' — a reference to the Dallas proposal's requirement that bishops report any suspicion of sexual abuse to civil authorities. Later, Castrillon said: ''For the Church, the statute of limitations isn't merely a matter of juridical expediency.'' The U.S. bishops have asked to punish guilty priests beyond the canon law limit of 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday. But perhaps most noteworthy was Castrillon's citing, on three different occasions, of the Christian notion of thee '"conversion" of sinners — a sign that the U.S. bishops' underlying approach of zero-tolerance may itself be unacceptable to the Vatican.

Lay Catholic groups that have been active in pressing for the changes proposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were unimpressed by the Vatican's response. David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), questioned whether Rome truly understood the magnitude of the problem, and the damage it was causing among the faithful. "It's basically a flat-out rejection with a vague promise to talk some more," Clohessy said. "We've been talking this to death for decades. The hierarchy has always protected its priests and that seems to be the emphasis yet again." Clohessy said it was hard to imagine that a Vatican-appointed commission of "eight older, white, male celibates is going to fix this." He saw the Vatican position as reverting back to the position where "every bishop gets to make up his own mind, handle these situations by himself." Says Clohessy, "That's what got us into this mess to begin with."

Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that grew out of dismay over the church's handling of the sexual abuse scandal in Boston, called the Vatican's rejection of the Dallas charter "deeply troubling." Mike Emerton, spokesman for the group, said the response "shows they have no understanding of the depth of this problem." Emerton said it was unclear why the Vatican required more time to "reflect" on the charter. "Why they need extra time to reflect on a document they've had for four months is confusing," he said. "Rome hasn't gotten the point yet." He called on the bishops to move immediately to protect children by implementing the Dallas charter.

Since June, a number of bishops have implemented some or all of its policies, while others have held off. Since responsibility has once more been given to individual bishops, "there's nothing to stop bishops from implementing the charter provisions immediately," Emerton said. "There's the challenge. The responsibility is once more with the bishops to ensure children are protected and priests are allowed due process."

The gulf between the Vatican's response and the demands of lay groupings among the American faithful leaves U.S. bishops in a difficult position, foremost among them Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference. Indeed, says Appleby, the Vatican's position on the role of the Bishops' Conference is troubling to critics who have called for more authority to be placed in its hands. The response from Rome described Gregory's group as "assisting" U.S. bishops. But, says Appleby, in the minds of many of the laity, the Bishops' Conference "needs to have the authority to require the bishops' compliance."

The response from Rome may have left Bishop Gregory in an awkward position, but he chose on Friday to take a positive view. "He's not interpreting this as a set-back," Appleby said of Gregory. "He's shrewd to set the tone that we are moving forward; that this is a step in the right direction toward refining, clarifying and formally implementing the Dallas charter." But it remains to be seen whether that's how Rome understands the next step.