Clergy Sexual Abuse
and the Catholic Church

U.S. Bishops Approve Revised Sex-Abuse Policy

By Julie Zimmerman and John Bookser Feister

The United States Catholic bishops, meeting in Washington, D.C., Nov. 11-14, overwhelmingly approved revisions to their sex-abuse policy that calls for removing offending priests from ministry.

Both the Charter for the Protection of Young People and its accompanying set of canonical regulations were adopted earlier this year, then revised after the Vatican objected to portions of the policy. Some officials were concerned that it did not sufficiently ensure due process for accused priests.

The revisions approved Nov. 13 in Washington had been worked out in Rome by four U.S. bishops and four top Vatican officials. The new policy permits bishops to make an initial, confidential inquiry when a priest is accused of molestation. If the accusation is deemed plausible, the priest is placed on leave and goes before a clerical tribunal.

The new policy requires that bishops follow local civil laws when it comes to reporting abuse claims, and the bishops pledged to report all accusations involving children to civil authorities. The revised policy details the Church's statute of limitations, which requires a victim to come forward by age 28, although bishops can ask the Vatican for a waiver in special cases. Review boards including lay people will continue to monitor abuse claims, but the policy reasserts that it is the bishops who have the authority to manage clergy.

The bishops anticipate receiving Vatican confirmation of the norms, giving them the force of Church law throughout the United States, before the end of the year.

Historic charter
At their June 2002 meeting, the U.S. bishops agreed to bar from ministry any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor. As a result, bishops in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Louisville and other dioceses removed priests with credible allegations against them from parishes, hospitals and administrative positions. Retired priests were informed they could no longer wear a clerical collar or present themselves as priests.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and the accompanying set of canonical regulations, also requires that all allegations of abuse be reported to law-enforcement officials. The charter marks the first-ever uniform national policy on clergy sex abuse for Catholic dioceses. The 15-point plan includes:

  • outreach and ministry to victims, without the requirement of secrecy;
  • the removal from ministry of any priest who has had substantiated allegations made against him. The removal from ministry includes a ban on saying Mass and wearing a clerical collar;
  • the establishment of a national Office for Youth and Child Protection at the USCCB to monitor the policies and compliance in dioceses around the country.
  • preventive measures against future abuse that include parish education programs, background checks, closer monitoring of priests who transfer dioceses, and cooperation with religious orders, ecumenical and community prevention efforts.

    The full text of the charter can be found at the U.S. bishops' Web site. also offers accounts of the bishops' June 2002 Dallas meeting and the summit of U.S. cardinals in Rome.

Julie Zimmerman is managing editor of and sister sites. She previously served as a writer for and as religion editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer. She has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago. John Bookser Feister is editor of and sister sites. He has master's degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University.

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