Signs of the Times

Vatican May O.K. Experimental Application of U.S. Norms

The Vatican is leaning toward approval of an experimental application of the U.S. bishops’ norms on sexual abuse by clergy, perhaps after some clarifying language is added, a senior Vatican official said. “This would not be a rejection by the Vatican, nor would it be a formal recognitio of the norms,” the official said on Sept. 23. Instead, the Vatican would allow the norms to be applied ad experimentum—the Latin phrase signifying temporary or provisional use. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, emphasized that a final decision had not yet been made, and the Vatican response had still not been written. But he said the “prevailing sentiment” was to recognize that the norms were formulated by U.S. bishops as an experimental initiative—to be evaluated after a two-year period. Therefore, the Vatican would respond with a conditional form of approval.

The delicate internal discussion on the norms, involving five Vatican agencies, was still continuing in late September. A draft of the final response was expected to be reviewed by Pope John Paul II in early October, Vatican sources said. Sometime before the middle of October, the response—probably in the form of a letter—is expected to go out to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the sources said.


The senior Vatican official said it was possible that the Vatican might indicate some norms that need further study or wording changes before even conditional approval is granted. In interviews in mid- and late September, informed Vatican sources said they considered the norms as well-intentioned but “imperfect.” They said the main problems with the norms as drafted were the unspecified time range for prosecuting such crimes, the unusual role of diocesan and national review boards and ambiguity over the definition of some key terms—such as “credible allegation” of sexual abuse. On the other hand, some officials said, the Vatican understood that U.S. bishops had to act quickly and forcefully to confront the scandal of clerical sex abuse and rebuild the trust of the faithful. They said the Vatican did not want its response to appear as a “quashing” of the bishops’ pastoral initiative or as a break with U.S. church leaders over the sexual abuse scandal.

Those in Rome interviewed by Catholic News Service identified several areas where in their view the norms as written were incompatible with “universal law” or raised questions that need clarification:

• The norms provide for a priest’s permanent removal from ministry for any single act of sexual abuse against a minor—“past, present or future.” The Vatican sources said that in a legal sense this unlimited time frame would be unique, and in a pastoral sense it seems to go against the basic principle that a sinner can be redeemed. Some Vatican officials said they were shocked to see U.S. priests removed from ministry on the basis of a single episode of sexual abuse 30 or 40 years ago.

• The norms call for establishment of diocesan and national review boards that are, in theory, consultative. But Vatican officials are bothered by some language that seems to suggest the bishops would be held accountable to these boards; they see that as an unacceptable infringement on the bishop’s authority, or alternatively as an unacceptable delegation of his responsibility.

On a more practical level, Vatican officials are upset at the recent statements of Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, chairman of the bishops’ national review board on sexual abuse. Among other things, Governor Keating has pressed bishops to implement immediately the bishops’ sexual abuse policies and said he will release the names of those who do not. In late July, the governor said that Catholics who find their bishop in flagrant violation of the new sex abuse policies should show their displeasure by withholding contributions and going to Mass in another diocese. One Vatican official called the governor’s statements “ridiculous”; another said his appointment to head the review board was a “huge, huge, huge mistake.”

• The norms make “credible allegation” the standard for relieving a priest of his ministry pending an investigation, but do not say who determines what is credible. In the eyes of some experts, this provision, combined with language in the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, implies that before returning to ministry, an accused priest would have to prove the “credible allegation” was unfounded. They said this would reverse the standard legal principle by which a person is innocent until proven guilty.

• The norms provide for bishops to request the dismissal from the priesthood of a priest-offender, even against his will. While acknowledging that this procedure has been used in a few particularly urgent cases in recent years, some Vatican experts questioned whether it should or could be written into a standard nationwide policy. They said it does not allow a defendant the same type of protection as foreseen in a judicial process.

Most Dioceses Have Policies, Procedures on Sex Abuse

Most U.S. Catholic dioceses already have a written policy on sexual abuse, procedures for dealing with complaints, a diocesan review board and a coordinator of pastoral outreach to victims, according to the responses to a questionnaire that was sent to dioceses by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The survey was done at the request of the bishops’ new national review board for a quick overview of where dioceses currently stand on policies and procedures to implement the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Of the 186 dioceses that answered the survey, 179 (92 percent of all dioceses) said they have a written policy on sexual abuse that is available to the public. Of the six dioceses (3 percent) who said they did not have a policy, five said they were preparing one. (The percentages on each question throughout the report do not add up to 100 percent because 5 percent of dioceses did not respond.)

Asked if they had a diocesan review board that complies with charter requirements that most members be lay people not employed by the church, 149 dioceses (76 percent) said yes. Of the 34 that said no, 25 replied that they planned to comply by the end of the year.

Responding to a two-part question on reporting allegations to civil authorities:

• 123 dioceses (63 percent) said their state includes clergy as mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse. Of the rest, 54 said no; nine answers were incomplete. Some dioceses have territory in two or more states.

• 105 dioceses (54 percent) said they also report past or old cases to civil authorities. Of the others, 48 said no, and 33 answers were incomplete.

Other survey questions and the responses were:

• On having a "statement or policy describing appropriate standards for ministerial behavior for clergy and other church personnel," 118 -- 61 percent -- said yes. Most of the 66 answering no said they were in the process of reviewing and updating personnel handbooks to comply with the charter. Responses of two dioceses were incomplete.

• On having a "safe environment" program to train and educate clergy, staff, teachers, parents and youth in detecting and preventing sexual abuse, 127 -- 65 percent -- said yes. Of the 56 answering no, most said they were exploring implementation by year’s end of the "Virtus" (Latin for "virtue") child abuse prevention program developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, which is already widely used by dioceses. Three responses were incomplete.

• On having procedures to check the background of clergy, church ministers and volunteers who have regular contact with minors, 160 dioceses -- 82 percent -- said yes. Of the 23 that answered no, most said they are developing procedures or revising older ones. Three responses were incomplete.

• On being in dialogue with superiors of religious orders, 144 dioceses -- 74 percent -- said yes. Of the 39 that said no, most said such a meeting is scheduled before the end of the year and seven said they have no religious-order priests working in their diocese or eparchy. Three responses were incomplete.

Archbishop Flynn said the reason most dioceses could report having charter-mandated policies and programs in place just two months after adopting the charter was that the charter itself was based on steps many dioceses had already taken over the previous decade or more. "The charter is part of an ongoing process" to combat and prevent sexual abuse in the church, he said.

Ratzinger to Bishops: Give Theologians Benefit of Doubt

When a theologian appears to stray from a truth of the Catholic faith, his bishop must react with prudence, attempt to read the theologian’s work in a positive light and spend time personally discussing the issues with him, said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The cardinal, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told new bishops from around the world that “many things can be clarified through personal rapport” with theologians.

“Obviously,” the cardinal told the bishops, “one would not proclaim lightly a judgment of heresy or of obscuring the faith. Prudence is de rigueur.”

Cardinal Ratzinger said the bishop must assume the “good will” of the theologian and “seek to interpret new proposals in a positive sense.” However, he said, the bishop always must defend the truths of the faith for the good of the community entrusted to him and for the good of the whole church.

Some bishops hesitate to act, the cardinal said, citing the need to respect freedom of thought, conscience and academic investigation, or their desire to maintain peace within the church community or to avoid giving added publicity to obscure erring theologians by taking public action. No one may be forced to believe what the church believes, he said. However, by calling oneself a Catholic, one is professing voluntary acceptance of what the church believes. “I am convinced that today we must oppose in a decisive way the abuse of the concept of freedom,” Cardinal Ratzinger said. “One cannot teach in the name of the church against the church.” Academic freedom and freedom of investigation must be protected, he said, but they are not as important as the right of the faithful to receive authentic Catholic teaching from theologians who call themselves Catholic.

Cardinal Ratzinger told the bishops that on more than one occasion when he asked a bishop to take action against an erring theologian he has been told, "Only a few people know the book. ... Why give it publicity?"

"Peace is an important good," he said, and there are times when one must evaluate whether the text and its potential negative influence are worth the publicity disciplining a theologian brings. At the same time, he said, "there can exist a false peace," built on ignoring threats and problems. "The bishop must be a man of peace," the cardinal said, but "he must also be ready for conflict" when it is a matter of defending the faith and showing the world that being Catholic means professing a precise set of beliefs.

News Briefs

• A major chapter in the Boston clergy sexual abuse scandal came to an end on Sept. 19 as 86 victims of former priest John J. Geoghan settled with the Boston Archdiocese for $10 million.

• Calling sexual abuse of children by clergy “the spiritual equivalent of murder,” Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore released the names of 83 priests accused of child sexual abuse in the archdiocese since the 1930’s and an accounting of archdiocesan funds spent because of sexual abuse by clergy since 1987.

• It would not be moral for the United States, acting alone or with only a few allies, to attack Iraq before a new round of inspections of Iraq’s arsenal, said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

• Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a top Vatican diplomat, urged the international community on Sept. 17 to step up efforts to implement a worldwide ban on land mines and to ensure lifelong care for victims of the weapons.

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