Signs of the Times

Bishops Approve Revised Norms and Charter With Zero Tolerance

The United States Conference of Catholic bishops on Nov. 13 overwhelmingly approved revised norms to deal with removal from ministry of any priest or deacon who has sexually abused a minor. By a vote of 246 to 7 they adopted the new document, worked out two weeks earlier at a Vatican meeting. Shortly afterward, the bishops overwhelmingly approved revisions to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, originally adopted at their June meeting in Dallas, to bring the charter into accord with the revisions of the norms.

The revised norms call for a prompt and objective investigation of any allegation of sexual abuse. A diocesan review board will confidentially advise the bishop in his assessment of the allegations. If “sufficient evidence” is present, the bishop notifies the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will normally direct the bishop to proceed with a trial before a diocesan tribunal, unless the congregation itself takes the case. Before a priest can be dismissed from the clerical state, he has a right to a trial before a church tribunal. From the time the bishop determines that there is “sufficient evidence” to proceed, the priest will be suspended from ministry until his case is completed. If the crime occurred outside the statute of limitations, the bishop “shall apply to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a dispensation” from the statute of limitations.


Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who led a two-hour discussion of the new norms, stressed that the revisions worked out in Rome by four U.S. bishops and four top Vatican officials strengthened the earlier version the bishops had adopted in Dallas along with the charter. The new document keeps in place the victim-assistance ministry, review boards and cooperation with civil authorities called for in the original norms, he said. The major change, he said, was to add the use of church trials, along with the administrative actions a bishop could take, to remove an offending priest from ministry.

The church norms do not replace the state criminal justice system, which can prosecute and punish priests who are sex offenders. But since many cases are beyond the state’s statute of limitations, the church must still deal with the priests. The norms would usually apply only to priests who claim innocence or who refuse to resign from the priesthood or retire from ministry.

The new norms offer the possibility of lifting the church’s statute of limitations case by case for those cases otherwise too old to prosecute. The statute of limitations requires that an act of abuse be reported to the bishop within 10 years after the abused minor turns 18. Cardinal George said that the large majority of existing cases of child sex abuse by priests fall into that category.

Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., referred to the case of a priest who abused a minor many years ago but is widely recognized as fully repentant and reformed. He said he removed that priest after the Dallas meeting but continued to hope that there could be a means of reinstating him. Without that possibility, he said, he had to oppose the norms. Cardinal George said that possibility does not exist. “I think we are committed since Dallas to removal from ministry in every one of these cases,” he said.

Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., said that in church teaching, sexual abuse of a child “is always a serious sin,” but over and above that in church law, “when it is done by a priest or deacon, it is a crime.” He reminded reporters of the Gospel passage in which Jesus warned that if anyone scandalizes a child, “it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” “That’s about as strong as you can get from the head of the organization,” he commented. Forgiveness of any sin is possible, but forgiveness does not imply a return to ministry.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., repeated concerns he had expressed in Dallas that the charter and norms drive a wedge between a bishop and his priests.

Bishop Sean P. O’Malley of Palm Beach, Fla., called the charter and norms “a corrective to an approach in the past that proved very inadequate.” Approval of the norms, he added, demonstrates that the application of the charter is not just a matter of relying on the good will of bishops, but it allows the bishops “to say we indeed have a national policy.”

In presenting the revised text to the bishops, Cardinal George advised them that “the norms are not a conference document” anymore, but a proposed “particular law” worked out with the Holy See. “If we pass this,” he said, “the Holy See has said, ‘What you have in front of you is acceptable,’” and it will receive Vatican approval. At a follow-up press conference, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said 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.

Bishop Doran said it may take about 18 months to gear up U.S. church courts, training lawyers and judges, in order to handle the expected cases resulting from the ability under the revised norms to bring offending priests to trial. None of the bishops knew how many cases would go to trial—if a priest voluntarily resigns or retires a trial would not be needed—but Cardinal George and Bishop Lori did not think it would be more than a couple of hundred.

At press briefings on Nov. 12 and 13, members of the mixed commission were peppered with questions by members of the press, who suspected there were loopholes in the revised norms that would allow an abusive priest to return to ministry. “We have not backed off in any way” from what the bishops decided in Dallas, Bishop Lori said. “Anyone who abuses a minor will be removed permanently from ministry.... A priest or deacon, for a single act of sexual abuse, will be removed permanently.” When a reporter from The Pittsburgh Post Gazette pointed out that the commitment to remove a priest from ministry in Norm 8 appeared to be qualified by the phrase, “if the case so warrants,” Bishop Lori acknowledged the bad punctuation and asserted that the “if” clause referred to dismissal from the clerical state, not removal from ministry.

Bishops Doran and Lori agreed that where the norms say a bishop “shall” apply to Rome for a waiver of the statute of limitations if it has run out in a case that should be brought to trial, the meaning of “shall” is “must.” Thus a bishop does not have any discretion to keep an abusive priest in ministry, even if his crime was beyond the statue of limitations.

The bishops also asserted that even if Rome does not allow for a trial in the case of a priest who offended beyond the statute of limitations, the bishop must still use his executive authority to remove the priest from ministry through an administrative process if he has admitted to abuse or if the bishop judges him to be a danger to the common good. A footnote to the administrative process was changed from saying the bishop “may strongly urge” the priest not to celebrate the Eucharist publicly to “the bishop may forbid the priest to celebrate the Eucharist publicly.”

When at a press conference on Nov. 13 America asked if the revised charter and norms constituted “zero tolerance,” Cardinal George, Bishop Lori and Bishop Doran said, “Yes.”

The media and victims’ groups also focused on the change in the requirement to report to civil authorities. The revised norms, instead of requiring a diocese to report any case of alleged abuse to public authorities if the victim is still a minor, substituted language that says the diocese will comply with applicable civil law on reporting. More than half the states make religious authorities mandatory reporters of abuse of minors, but many do not. Bishop Lori referred reporters to the charter. As revised, the charter still retained the statement, dioceses “will report an allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the public authorities.” “The norms represent the minimum,” explained Bishops Lori. “The charter represents the full expanse of our commitment.” He said the bishops were morally bound to follow the charter.

To the claim by a reporter from The Wanderer that some bishops have actively recruited homosexuals for the priesthood, Cardinal George responded: “We don’t know of any bishops who have gone out of their way to recruit homosexuals. I don’t know of any bishop who would hesitate to remove from their ranks [as priests of the diocese] those who are committed to a homosexual lifestyle.”

A number of bishops complained that the press and victims’ groups had misrepresented the revised norms as a softening of the Dallas norms. The complicated canonical docoment was released to the press at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, the day before the Congressional election, with little or no explanation of the text. Four nationally prominent canon lawyers who were shown the text by America were confused by it (Signs of the Times, 11/18). If the bishops had had Bishops Lori and Doran brief the press and victims’ groups when the revised norms were first released, the press coverage might have been quite different.

Bishops to Bush: Case for War in Iraq Not Made

In an unscheduled action on Nov. 13, U.S. bishops voiced their opposition to unilateral U.S. military actions against Iraq. “Based on the facts that are known to us,” they declared, “we continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war with Iraq, lacking a clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature.” At the same time, they welcomed initiatives by the United States “to gain new action by the U.N. Security Council to make sure Iraq meets its obligations to disarm.”

Acknowledging that people of good will can differ on the application of just-war norms to situations of conflict, they affirmed that “resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.”

The U.S.C.C.B. statement insisted that that the bishops “have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government.” The prelates repeated their demands that Iraq end its repressive activity against its own people and that it stop its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

In making their case, the bishops laid emphasis on the just war criteria of just cause and legitimate authority. They faulted efforts to extend the concept of just cause to preventative war, whether to avoid the use of weapons of mass destruction or to force a change of government. They urged holding to a distinction between changing a government’s unacceptable behavior and ending its existence.

With implicit criticism of potential unilateral action by the United States, the conference concurred with the Vatican view that resort to force ought to be undertaken “within the framework of the United Nations.”

In applying the principle of proportionality, the bishops observed that “the use of force might provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent, could impose terrible new burdens on an already long-suffering civilian population, and could lead to a wider conflict and instability in the region.” They nonetheless acknowledged that avoiding military action now could have negative consequences later.

Other Matters Approved by U.S. Bishops

During the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Nov. 11-14, the following items were approved:

• A new program to strengthen ministry among Hispanics in anticipation of Latinos becoming the largest single group of U.S. Catholics.

• A message marking the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in which the U.S. bishops unanimously pledged to continue working to overturn the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion “no matter how long it may take, no matter the sacrifices required.”

• A letter expressing solidarity with the Colombian bishops following the kidnapping of Bishop Jorge Jiménez Carvajal of Zipaquira, president of the Latin American bishops’ council.

• A pastoral document on domestic violence (see America editorial, 11/18).

• Strangers No Longer, on immigration, the first joint statement issued by the U.S. and Mexican bishops’ conferences.

• With virtually no debate, the English translations of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Rites of Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests and of Deacons.

• A Place at the Table, a short pastoral reflection on Catholic social teaching for parish use.

• The election of six chair-elects, including Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco for the Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee for the Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

Abuse Crisis Will Cut Church Funds, Says National Study

A national study of churchgoing Catholics reports a significant drop-off in contributions because of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and warns of even bigger cutbacks if donor money is used to pay bills tied to the scandals. One quarter of churchgoing Catholics would reduce their giving at the parish, diocesan and national levels if the money were used to pay for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits, reports the survey. The clergy sexual abuse crisis also is spurring calls for greater financial accountability by bishops, reports the study. It warned of “a potential for a stern response from Catholic donors in the absence of wise stewardship.” The study was sponsored by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA).

News Briefs

• Kathleen L. McChesney, the highest-ranking woman at the F.B.I., was appointed executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new Office for Child and Youth Protection.

• More than a third of Irish Catholics said clerical child abuse had led them to reduce their Mass attendance and pray less often, according to a survey by the Irish bishops’ Committee on Child Protection. Almost three quarters of respondents opposed the church’s mandatory celibacy rule for priests, with only 17 percent favoring celibacy.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

This year’s W.Y.D takes place less than three months after the conclusion of the Synod for Young People that was held in the Vatican last October.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2019
On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.

Like most public writers, I was used to getting notes that were crude, crazy or even mildly threatening. Normally, I would say a quick prayer for these obviously troubled people and get on with my day. This time it felt different, precisely because the author wasn’t insulting or obviously deranged.
Rachel LuJanuary 21, 2019
In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019