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Vatican Stands by Church's Soldiers

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Vatican stands by church’s soldiers

Rejecting pedophilia curbs, church shows who’s boss

By Stephen Weeke


VATICAN CITY, Oct. 20 — Friday’s announcement that the Vatican would not approve the new rules adopted by America’s bishops to deal with pedophile priests re-ignited the flames of this emotional debate. This latest development in a scandal that has divided American Roman Catholics since January publicly reasserted the Vatican’s power and authority over local churches. For many Catholics this came across as another instance of Rome’s being repressive, but for others, especially innocent priests, this is one time that the “top brass” came through for the soldiers, not the officers.

BISHOP WILTON GREGORY, the current president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, came to Rome last week hoping to get official validation of the new policy. The “recognitio” (Latin for recognition) would have meant Vatican approval of the new rules and would have made them binding on all bishops in all U.S. dioceses.

Although most bishops already have applied the “Dallas norms,” several have done so with trepidation, concerned about the irrevocable severity of measures that can destroy a priest’s career on reputation alone, before guilt is even proven. The norms call for the immediate suspension of a priest from his assignment on the basis of a “credible allegation.” This doesn’t mean he’s out of the priesthood; it’s more like the “administrative leave” given to police officers accused of using excessive force, while their actions are being investigated for any wrongdoing.

But unlike police officers who can still enforce the law without the trust and faith of their citizens, priests can’t teach and preach morality, and the acceptance of God’s will, if their parishioners think they are child molesters. Even a finding of innocence in many cases won’t restore a priest’s reputation once it’s been publicly tainted in his parish and the local press.


This one-strike-you’re-out policy has come to be known as “zero-tolerance,” in which the bishops committed to remove a priest for just a single act of sexual abuse, “past, present or future.” The nationwide outrage at the extent of the cover-ups over the years in several dioceses for repeat offenders had driven the bishops into a corner. In order to show Americans how serious they were about rooting out abuse, they basically came up with a clerical version of the death penalty.

Though the rights of the accused are protected in the norms by an appeals process, the spirit of the new policy clearly shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. American law is based on the presumption of innocence, and so is church law. Canon lawyers (advocates of church law) in Rome and in America were quick to criticize the zero-tolerance measures for this very reason.

At the bishops meeting in Dallas in June, there was a tremendous sense of urgency and need for drastic action. The building was surrounded with live television trucks and angry victims groups. The bishops needed to do something big, and they had to do it fast.

Most Catholics, especially parents, felt that the good of the “many,” in this case the safety of their children, clearly overrode the good of the “few,” the reputations and careers of priests. The bishops obviously agreed, justifying a dragnet policy that would, it was hoped, snare all the “bad guys” even if it meant sacrificing some of the “good guys” in the process.

But the Vatican said no — that the measures are not fair, and that they go against universal law, basic principles that form the basis for Catholic beliefs such as God’s existence, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, justice and the rights of the individual.


When Bishop Gregory faced the press here on Friday he tried to make the best of a difficult situation. He emphasized that the Vatican had not voided the norms but on the contrary, just wanted to “fine-tune” them for compliance to universal law. But critics didn’t see it that way.

Victims groups saw it as a defeat and further evidence that the Vatican is more concerned about “protecting its own” than past and future victims of abusive priests. Canon lawyers who predicted this would happen say the bishops went too far too fast because of public pressure and were wrong to do so.

But one group was happy about what happened Friday: regular priests. There are 46,000 priests in America. Of those, 300 have so far been removed for allegations of sexual abuse. That’s less than 1 percent.

It will not be easy to please everyone in this religious crisis, but the process isn’t over. A commission composed of four Vatican officials and four U.S. bishops will now take up the issue with the goal of presenting a revised and completed policy in time for the U.S. bishops meeting next month in Washington.

If that goal is achieved with an outcome that both the faithful and their clergy can live with, this process may eventually be seen as a success. If it isn’t, it will be a real setback for Catholicism in America.

But the Vatican won’t look at it that way. The Vatican will see it as just one more time when the flock had to be reminded that Rome is still the boss.

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