Signs of the Times

U.S. Bishops Rule Zero Tolerance for Priests Who Abuse

At a historic meeting in Dallas, Tex., on June 13-15, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ordered dramatic changes to protect children throughout the Catholic Church in the United States, notably forbidding a second chance in ministry for any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor.

After 11 hours of intense debate over two days, the bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which all dioceses must implement. For even a single act of sexual abuse of a minorpast, present or futurethe offending priest or deacon will not remain in ministry and will not receive a future assignment, it said.


When the 239-to-13 vote adopting the charter was announced, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., U.S.C.C.B. president, rose to address the bishops. From this day forward, he said, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States. The charter, he added, ensures that young people are protected, that victims are truly listened to and assisted, that all priests are trustworthy and that all bishops act responsibly.

The meeting brought extraordinary newspaper and broadcast coverage, with more than 750 media representatives converging on Dallas. Members of victims’ groupsnotably Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkuphad unprecedented access to bishops and the media.

The meeting also featured unusual acts of self-criticism on the part of the bishops. They devoted their opening session June 13 to listening to victim-survivors, an expert in child sexual abuse trauma and criticisms by two prominent lay Catholic leaders of the way bishops exercise their authority and leadership in the church today.

At one of the sessions from which reporters were excluded, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, where the national scandal broke open last January, delivered what one bishop described as a profound apology to his fellow bishops. During the closed-door meeting, some bishops said that some bishops needed to resign.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, shepherded the charter through five hours of open debate and voting on June 14 before hundreds of reporters. One of the major issuesdebated two-and-a-half hours in closed session and more briefly again in the open sessionwas whether priests or deacons with only one accusation in the distant past and exemplary service for many years following treatment should now be removed from ministry. In the end the bishops decided that the good of the churchthe restoration of credibility and trustdemanded a policy that will not allow any offender to return to any form of ministry.

The norms say a bishop may request laicization (dismissal from the clerical state) of an abusing priest even without his consent. The charter adds, If the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has not been appliede.g., for reasons of advanced age or infirmitythe offender is to lead 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. Archbishop Flynn said he regarded the exceptions for age or infirmity as limited conditions, very, very limited. He said he was happy to see the exception to the laicization rule for the sick or old. We have to be careful of cruelty, he said. At the same time he thought the total ban on returning any priest guilty of abuse to ministry makes sense because the priest has broken the public trust given him and the consequences of trying to reintroduce him to ministry are too negative, just too negative.

The charter mandated creation of a new U.S.C.C.B. Office for Child and Youth Protection to help dioceses implement the charter and oversee what they do, reporting publicly each year an evaluation of each diocese. Responsibility for overseeing the national office and reviewing its annual report before publication is to be in the hands of a blue-ribbon national review board. After the charter was adopted, Bishop Gregory announced that he has named Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma to head that board.

The charter mandates a review board in every diocese, to be made up mostly of lay people who are not in the church’s employ, which is to investigate all allegations of sexual abuse of minors and make a periodic review of diocesan policies and procedures for possible improvement. Every diocese is also to have an assistance coordinator to aid in the immediate pastoral care of persons who claim to have been sexually abused as minors by anyone who works for the church.

The charter requires reporting any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities if the alleged victim is still a minor. The diocese will cooperate with public authorities about reporting in cases when the person alleged to have been abused is no longer a minor. In every instance, the charter says, the diocese will advise and support a person’s right to make a report to public authorities. The charter also opposes secrecy in legal settlements, saying a confidentiality agreement is forbidden unless the victim seeks it for grave and substantial reasons.

A key element for future protection of children is the mandate for every diocese to establish safe environment programs to educate children, parents and church personnel in the prevention and detection of sexual abuse. Background checks of all church workers will be required and screening procedures for priesthood candidates will be reviewed and improved. All U.S. seminaries are to undergo a new apostolic visitationonsite investigations under Vatican auspicesto assure the quality of their programs of human formation for celibate chastity.

After passage of the charter, members of groups such as the SNAP and Call to Action were quick to say that anything short of immediate laicization of all offenders past, present and future fails to meet their definition of zero tolerance. The various groups also said they wanted to see some system of formally holding bishops responsible if they fail to follow the norms. SNAP president David Clohessy said that what the bishops did was without a doubt the most detailed, extreme and sensitively written document on abuse that the bishops have written and that it accomplished 90 percent of what SNAP members sought. The remaining 10 percent is a matter of whether the steps the bishops adopted are implemented, he said.

Despite extensive speculation in the U.S. media that the legislative norms adopted by the bishops face an uphill fight in Rome, one Vatican official contacted by CNS guessed that the review process might be completed within three monthsa short time by Vatican standards, especially since several Vatican offices are likely to be involved. Because it involves legislation by a bishops’ conference, the Vatican Congregation for Bishops is likely to coordinate the review in Rome. At least three other Vatican congregationsfor doctrine, clergy, and divine worship and the sacramentsare likely to be involved. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts will do an independent review of the norms in terms of their conformity with existing church law.

Charter Debate Reflects Bishops’ Struggles

The U.S. bishops’ vote on June 14 to adopt the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was nearly unanimous, but their daylong debate about it highlighted their difficulty in coming to a consensus. Consideration of whether to add the word credible to a clause about when an allegation of sexual abuse by clergy must be reported to authorities was one sticking point. Another was whether the charter’s requirement that anyone with a history of even one incident of sexual abuse of a minor be removed from ministry would extend to priests with one prior, long-ago report and a clean history ever since.

The credible debate revolved around an amendment proposed by Archbishop James P. Keleher of Kansas City, Kan., and Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. They both recommended adding the word credible to the sentence, Dioceses will report any allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the public authorities.

Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the bishops that civil laws do not give the bishops the option to determine whether an allegation is credible before passing it on to authorities. The reporting laws in the United States all set the bar very low, Chopko said. Nevertheless, discussion went on for some time, as several bishops attempted to convince others that not providing an out to deal with clearly unsupportable allegations would constitute abandoning our priests, as Bishop John T. Steinbock of Fresno, Calif., put it.

Ultimately, that amendment failed, following arguments like those made by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. One of the accusations against us from the public is that we have not been doing this [reporting every allegation], he said. He noted that in the last few months he himself has been the subject of two accusations that were quickly proved false by civil authorities, who were notified as soon as the claims were made. I welcomed the investigation of the police, Cardinal Mahony said. They got to them quickly and found they were unfounded.

Others argued that the bishops needed to remove all doubts about their intentions. I believe that anything we do to seem to give ourselves wiggle room will be immensely counterproductive, said Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati.

The second major hurdle for the bishops was over the so-called zero tolerance provision, making it mandatory that proven child molesters be removed from their public role as priests after just one incident. The provision had been the subject of two and a half hours of debate during the bishops’ executive session the night before. Cardinal Mahony said that discussion ended with a consensus to go ahead with the one-strike approach.

However, a handful of bishops again tried to persuade the others that a system that retroactively includes everyone with one incident of past abuse would be going too far. Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., compared the proposal to laws like one in New York, where three strikes laws were adopted as a way of attacking drug crime. While it helped cut crime, he said, thousands of people who needed treatment for drug abuse were instead imprisoned.

A review of individual cases of accusations against priests by a lay-run panel ought to be sufficient for ensuring that priests likely to cause further harm are prevented from doing so, Bishop Hubbard argued. While some, indeed probably most, in the church will be unaccepting of anything short of a zero-tolerance policy, others will be upset that we as a faith community may be abandoning restorative justice to appease a one-size-fits-all approach that our criminal justice pastoral was designed to prevent, said Bishop Hubbard. He was referring to a major statement approved by the U.S. bishops in 2000 that urged reform of the U.S. criminal justice system and criticized its increasing reliance on more prisons, stiffer sentences and the use of capital punishment.

Conference President Confesses and Apologizes for Bishops

Acknowledging that the Catholic Church in the United States is in perhaps the gravest crisis we have faced, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for confession, contrition and resolve at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas. In his presidential address on the first day of the meeting, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., apologized profusely to victims of sexual abuse by priests, to their families, to religious, deacons and laity, and to our faithful priests. He noted that there is a great deal of anger among bishops over the failures of their brother bishops.

The crisis in the church is not about a lack of faith in God, Bishop Gregory said. The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds, because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel.

Both what we have done’ and what we have failed to do’ contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and church personnel, he said. Bishop Gregory said the bishops need to confess:

We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, orGod forbidwith knowledge, who allowed priest-abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse.

We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this.

We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.

And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church.

If the bishops have learned anything, he added, it is how devastating the effects of sexual abuse are. Those of us who have not experienced sexual abuse in our childhood can never fully understand what it has done to you, Bishop Gregory told victims, promising to make every effort to take on your perspective.

I express the most profound apology to each of you who have suffered sexual abuse by a priest or another official of the church, he said. I am deeply and will be forever sorry for the harm you have suffered. We ask your forgiveness.

Finally, Bishop Gregory asked anyone sexually abused who has not yet reported it to come forward and report it to the bishop and the police.

Head of Sex Abuse Panel May Ask for Bishops’ Resignations

Bishops who protect abusive priests and put them in positions that allow them to abuse again are arguably obstructing justice and accessories to the crime of the priest, said Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a former F.B.I. agent and prosecutor, who has been named to head a national review board that will oversee the U.S. bishops’ implementation of their new national policy to protect children from sexual abuse by priests. He said he would ask the pope to call for the resignation of such bishops. Asked if he would include Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston among those he thought should be forced to resign, Keating said, Yes.

News Briefs

The Diocese of Brooklyn announced June 12 that John J. Gotti, the organized crime figure who died June 10 at the age of 61, could not have a funeral Mass. In a one-sentence statement, the diocesan chancellor, Father Andrew J. Vaccari, said, "The diocese has decided that there can be a Mass for the dead sometime after the burial of John Gotti." Diocesan spokesman Frank DeRosa told The New York Times that a priest would attend the wake and conduct a burial service. He said church officials decided against a funeral Mass because they felt an expected crowd of curious onlookers and media "would take away from the decorum" of the service. According to news reports, he was to be buried in a Brooklyn diocesan cemetery, St. John in Middle Village, which is a community in the borough of Queens.

Saying they were saddened by violence, poverty and pollution, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople signed a common declaration on respecting human life and safeguarding all creation. "What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view ourselves, one another and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation," the two leaders said in the June 10 declaration. With a live television hookup linking the two, the patriarch signed the document in Venice, and the pope signed it at the Vatican. "Our meeting, even if at a distance, allows us to express together our common will to safeguard creation, to stand alongside of and support every initiative which can beautify, heal and preserve this land which God has given us to care for with wisdom and love," Pope John Paul told the patriarch.

In a strongly worded condemnation of Palestinian terror attacks, Pope John Paul II denounced a suicide bombing in Jerusalem June 18 that killed 20 bus passengers and wounded 55 others. "The dramatic news of the attack that yesterday sowed terror and death in Jerusalem cannot but prompt the most absolute reprobation on the part of all," he said at the end of his weekly general audience at the Vatican. "For the umpteenth time, I repeat to those who plot and plan such barbarous attacks that they must answer for them before God," the pope said. He expressed solidarity with the victims' families and with the wounded. "I invite everyone to pray to the Lord with me that he will change hardened hearts and inspire thoughts of peace and reciprocal forgiveness in those who live in that region so dear to us," the pope said.

A U.S. House of Representatives resolution offering solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism was unjust and blindly supportive of Israeli actions against the Palestinians, said the president of Catholic-run Bethlehem University. U.S. Christian Brother Vincent Malham, university president and vice chancellor, said the resolution "completely denies legitimate resistance to occupation and generations of suffering of the Palestinian people." The resolution is "blatantly detrimental to the peace process," Brother Malham said during the annual conference and investiture of the southeast chapter of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher in Orlando June 9. It is important for Americans to distinguish between support of Israel as a state and support of Israel's policies--just as it is important to distinguish between actions of the Palestinian government or extremist groups and support of the Palestinian people, he added.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
16 years 6 months ago
As I read your brief notice that the Diocese of Brooklyn denied John Gotti a funeral Mass, I was surprised by my strong and deep sadness. I recognize that there are abundant reasons for such exclusion. But I found myself yearning for a Christian cry of hope even about this cruel and savage life. In my judgment a funeral Mass is most profoundly a bold affirmation about divine love: "Christ minds; Christ's interest, what to avow or amend There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind, Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend." (Hopkins) May we Catholics dare to proclaim this about every life--if not in liturgy at least in a few modest lines in America.

16 years 6 months ago
As I read your brief notice that the Diocese of Brooklyn denied John Gotti a funeral Mass, I was surprised by my strong and deep sadness. I recognize that there are abundant reasons for such exclusion. But I found myself yearning for a Christian cry of hope even about this cruel and savage life. In my judgment a funeral Mass is most profoundly a bold affirmation about divine love: "Christ minds; Christ's interest, what to avow or amend There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind, Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend." (Hopkins) May we Catholics dare to proclaim this about every life--if not in liturgy at least in a few modest lines in America.

11 years 12 months ago
We are thankful for the splendid and balanced coverage by America over the past weeks reporting the serious moral problems in the clergy. But from reading the statements of Archbishop Herranz in Milan (7/1, Signs of the Times), I fear that the real crisis is yet to come. The bishops have reached a reasonable, necessary and compassionate policy to begin implementation of essential reforms. The rub will be Rome’s reaction. Will it be prudently related to the American and Catholic real world of the 21st century or will a wagon-circling, self-protective, arrogant policy emerge from “beyond the mountains”? The stakes may well be as high as when pitchmen roamed through Germany 500 years ago selling indulgences.

Pre-Vatican II believers like me were schooled in Plato, Aristotle and Thomism. Yet we were quietly exposed to the irrationalities in the Syllabus of Errors, to the Modernist controversy and the limitations on infallibility. We are generally able to distinguish between personal belief in the God of Catholic tradition and the hierarchy and between the people of God as the church and the Vatican bureaucracy.

The United States has the largest concentration in the world of young, educated, thoughtful, practicing and active Catholics. Two generations of them since the Second Vatican Council are a real hope for the future and the spreading of the Gospel to the world. They lack the scholastic academic training of another era, but they fervently wish to be Catholic and to tie their beliefs and hopes to a credible and humane clergy, from parish ministers to the apex of power in Rome. I fear that any material diminution, dilution or rejection of the bishops’ decisions at Dallas will alienate millions of the younger faithful and in their minds will confirm the demise of Vatican authority over the entire spectrum of faith and morals. It would be a profoundly sad outcome for all of us.

11 years 12 months ago
I am a lay Catholic who is part of the distinct minority who are ashamed of the bishops’ actions in Dallas (7/1, Signs of the Times). Yes, like everyone else in the country, I am very concerned about the problem of child abuse. I am a pediatrician, and I have children of my own, and I won’t take accusations that I am “unconcerned with the victims” or the larger problems. But I have absolutely no desire to be part of the “hangin’ is too good for ’em” mob with their shouts of “zero tolerance.” I recognize that “zero tolerance” is just a catchy slogan for injustice, and that is what happened in Dallas.

The bishops, recognizing a loss of their own good P.R. (and money), decided to put on a media show, complete with prancing out victims’ tales, all to sell the idea that they were doing something dramatic and decisive. What they decided to do, however, is ignore all principles of canon law and basic justice, and to throw away the rights of priests. Well, not all priests. For themselves, the bishops only felt a day of penance was in order. They will make sure that is well covered in the press, so they can get credit where it counts.

The news reports are that the Vatican has grave reservations about “zero tolerance.” It is good to hear that there is still some sense in the world, and maybe (only a faint hope) even some who will take the bishops to task for selling priests down the river to cover their own problems. When the bishops threw away canon law to write their charter, they betrayed the church. More important, they betrayed the Gospel, which preaches forgiveness. They gave in to the worst in their flocks in order to preserve their own power and prestige. It was wrong. It was ugly. It was manipulative. The bishops knew it was wrong, but listened to their P.R. consultants in suits rather than their own consciences. Bravo for the 50 bishops who declined to join the mob, and especially the 13 who voted against. Shame on those who will join the stone-throwers so they can look good to the mob. Dallas was the day that the American bishops outlawed the Gospel.


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