By John Bookser Feister
After two days of intense discussion, debate and round-the-clock committee work, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved sweeping new reforms to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and an accompanying set of canonical regulations, marks the first-ever uniform national policy on clergy sex abuse for Catholic dioceses. The "one-strike-and-you're-out" character of the charter was a victory for USCCB President Wilton E. Gregory against those bishops who sought a more lenient approach toward priests who had committed sex-abuse violations against minors in the distant past.
As a sign of what is to come, Bishop Gregory named Catholic layman and Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating as chairman of a new national review board that will audit the implementation of the charter in every U.S. diocese. That board will be comprised primarily of lay Catholics. Keating, with a background in criminal law, has a reputation for being tough on criminals. Governor Keating came to Dallas to join Bishop Gregory in his announcement of the appointment. Two other "core members" of the committee were named: Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Bennett, and Chicago Appellate Court Judge and child advocate Anne Burke.
During the late Friday news conference, Keating commented that he felt that bishops who had knowingly harbored criminal priests should resign.
The charter is a 15-point plan that was not won without contentious debate among the 288 bishops who had gathered in Dallas. The first section deals with promoting healing and reconciliation for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. It essentially call for parishes and dioceses to reach out to victims and take care of them, without requiring secrecy.
The second section addresses effective response to allegations of abuse. All allegations, past, present and future, are to be reported to local civil authorities and investigated by the diocese in accordance with Canon Law. Repeating Pope John Paul II, the bishops state, "There is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young."
In a compromise move, the bishops backed down from mandatory laicization as the only way to deal with abusers. They instead opted for a removal from ministry. Those not laicized, especially aged and infirm priests who have abused in the past, are to be isolated in a life of prayer and penance. "He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb or to present himself publicly as a priest." The intention is to prevent any opportunity for further abuse.
The third section calls for the immediate establishment of a national Office for Youth and Child Protection at the USCCB and the aforementioned national review board to oversee its work.
Finally, the charter lays out preventive measures against future abuse: parish education programs, background checks on all diocesan and parish staff who contact youth regularly, closer monitoring of priests who transfer dioceses, cooperation with religious orders, ecumenical and community prevention efforts.
The charter passed overwhelmingly (239-13), although several prominent bishops who said they would vote for it expressed serious reservations about the strict and public treatment of old abuse cases. Notable was Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia), who expressed reservations but said that only such a strong measure could get the Church back on the right course. Cardinal Avery Dulles, too old to vote in the conference, stated that he opposed the charter outright on grounds that its definition of sex abuse, modeled after one by the Canadian bishops, was too broad.
Full texts of various presentations have also been posted by the bishops.
The bishops scheduled Saturday as a day of prayer among themselves.
John Bookser Feister is editor of AmericanCatholic.org and an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine whose 1994 article on clergy sexual abuse was awarded best general-interest magazine article that year by the Catholic Press Association. He holds master's degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University.