WASHINGTON – The Vatican should be asked to defrock any priest who sexually abuses a child in the future, a panel of American Roman Catholic bishops recommended in a long-awaited report on Tuesday.
Under the plan, American priests who victimized more than one child in the past also would be removed, and all such violations would have to be reported to authorities.
But the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse said priests who molested only one time in the past should be allowed to continue in the ministry under certain conditions.
The committee's proposals will be put to a vote when bishops from around the country meet June 13-15 in Dallas.
The committee's report leaves the bishops open to attack from those who want a sweeping zero-tolerance policy, meaning the removal of all past abusers and those caught in the future. Debate over ousting errant clergy will likely be intense at the Dallas conference.
Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Archdiocese hailed the report in a brief conference shortly after noon, noting that it proposes remedies for sex abuse; calls for every priest to be trustworthy; calls for the protection of children; and calls for the accountability of bishops.
More than 225 clergy out of 46,075 U.S. priests — less than half of one percent — have either resigned or been taken off duty since the sex-abuse crisis engulfing the church began in January with a case in Boston.
The committee's plan contains apologies to victims and emphasizes the bishops' commitment to reform.
"The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which these crimes and sins were too often dealt with by bishops, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion," the panel wrote.
"We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain by what we have done or by what we have failed to do."
A senior Vatican official said the Vatican is not preparing a public response to the committee's recommendation, as it will await decisions by the full bishops assembly at the Dallas meeting. Those decisions will then be sent to the Vatican for approval, said the official, who asked that his name not be used.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, one of the most active priests in aiding victims, said the document's contrition over bishops' misdeeds "is certainly extraordinary, given the way in which church bodies respond to crisis situations."
"It is a new beginning," he said, if the sorrow proves sincere and the charter, especially outreach to victims, is honored. But "there have been so many promises made," he cautioned. If even "one or two bishops" continue to treat victims with hostility or let lawyers pursue hardball tactics, Doyle said, "that will blow the bottom out of any credibility they wish to restore."
The Vatican would be asked to swiftly defrock any child abuser in the future and all offenders with more than one transgression in the past. Currently, defrocking involves cumbersome appeals, and U.S. bishops have been asking Rome to streamline the process for years.
For priests accused of just one offense in the past, a diocesan review board — comprised mainly of lay people — would determine whether the cleric would return to public ministry.
The clergyman would have to undergo treatment and evaluation to determine that he was not a pedophile. The review board would also have to consider whether the priest was free of criminal or civil claims, whether he continued to receive counseling and accepted public disclosure of his misconduct.
If the board concluded the one-time offender did not meet these and other criteria, he would remain a priest but would not return to public ministry and would not be allowed to wear the priest's collar or celebrate Mass in public.
Dioceses also would commit to "transparency and openness" in helping communities affected by clerical misconduct.
Bishops would no longer enter into confidentiality agreements when settling civil lawsuits unless the victim insists. Such agreements have been common in the hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements that dioceses have paid since the 1980s.
"In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process, and in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated," the panel said of the agreements.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is struggling to balance the rights of victims and accused priests in a policy meant to restore trust in the church, which has been under siege for months over how prelates have handled clerical sexual misconduct.
The conference already has guidelines for responding to molestation claims, but compliance is voluntary because each diocese reports to the Vatican — not the national bishops' organization. Rome's approval is needed for a mandatory policy, but it was unclear from the proposals released Tuesday whether the bishops would seek such authorization.
Bishops and leaders of religious orders should provide an "accurate and complete" description of a priest's personnel record if the cleric seeks to transfer to another diocese, the committee said.
The conference also would create a commission to research how the U.S. church has responded to sex abuse by priests and would join other denominations and groups researching child sex abuse in society at large.
However, the report contained no specifics on the focus of such studies.
As the crisis has unfolded since erupting with the case of former priest John Geoghan in Boston, questions have arisen about the rate of pedophilia among priests, whether there was a link between celibacy and abuse, and whether homosexuality was a factor, since most of the victims were older boys. The church has been reluctant to authorize research on these issues in the priesthood.
The proposal also includes creating a national child protection office which would educate dioceses on protecting children. Criminal background checks would be mandatory for any diocesan staff working with children.
The president of the conference would also appoint a review board — including parents — to work with the child protection office to annually examine how dioceses were responding to abuse. And bishops would create support programs for victims in each diocese.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.