WASHINGTON – A plan to rid the Roman Catholic Church of priestly sex abuse includes a zero-tolerance policy for clergy who molest children in the future and a two-strikes-you're-out policy for those guilty of past abuse — but some church leaders already say it's not enough.
Three cardinals who met with the pope in April to discuss the abuse crisis in the American church criticized the proposal, which will be the focus of a meeting of all U.S. bishops June 13-15 in Dallas. A leading victims' advocate also attacked the panel that produced the plan for failing to sweep out all abusers.
Under the proposal, clergymen who molested a child once in the past could continue serving a parish under certain conditions, such as if they undergo counseling and agree to public disclosure of their misconduct.
All abuse of minors would have to be reported to civil authorities.
The report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will be put to a vote in Dallas. Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the panel, said the proposal would undergo extensive revisions before the meeting to incorporate opinions from other bishops.
"The committee had its most challenging debate with regard to priests with past acts of sexual abuse," Flynn said. "We are deeply sympathetic to the feelings of victims/survivors who have experienced years of suffering due to sexual abuse, but treatment and the power of Christian conversion (redemption) have made a difference in some cases."
Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the one-strike policy should apply to past and future cases. Keeler said his archdiocese had tried to allow an errant priest to continue to serve, but another claim surfaced against the clergyman and Keeler considered the approach a failure.
"I shall advocate a policy that says one act of child abuse is one act too many," Keeler said.
Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida called the policy for one-time offenders in the past confusing.
"I have to say in my experience, I don't know of any case where there's just been one instance," Maida said.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the report failed to meet the demands of angry parishioners
"The bishops say zero tolerance, sort of, kind of, maybe, sometimes, and only for those who molest tomorrow," Clohessy said. And he questioned why there was no zero tolerance "for priests who suspect abuse and remain silent, and for bishops who enable abuse by recycling priests and concealing crimes?"
The document did not say the bishops would seek Vatican authorization to make the full policy binding on each diocese. However, Flynn said the Holy See would be asked to review the plan and approve whatever changes may be needed in church law specific to the United States.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops already has guidelines for responding to molestation claims, but compliance is voluntary because each diocese reports to the Vatican -- not the national bishops' organization.
Flynn said the latest proposal calls for national and local audits of how dioceses have responded to abuse claims, and that would ensure compliance. He said no bishop would dare to violate the policy in this atmosphere of crisis.
"Public disclosure would be sanction enough," said Flynn, archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. "Once whatever is passed is passed in Dallas, I can't imagine any bishop would say, 'I will not follow that."'
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America, agreed. He also said the bishops appear to have crafted a policy that would allow them to take a tough approach even if the Vatican doesn't approve.
"To convince Rome to allow this charter to be binding on all bishops will require strong arguments from a united (group)," Reese said. "On the other hand, most of the charter can be implemented voluntarily without delay by the bishops in their own dioceses."
A senior Vatican official, who asked that his name not be used, said Rome was not preparing a public response to the committee's plan, but would await decisions by the full assembly of bishops in Dallas.
In its preamble, the report emphasizes the bishops' commitment to reform and offers perhaps their most far-reaching apology to victims yet.
"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."
At least 225 of the nation's more than 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the scandal began in January.
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 for years have been asking Rome to streamline the process.
For priests accused of just one offense in the past, a diocesan review board -- comprising mainly lay people -- would determine whether the cleric would return to public ministry.
If the board concluded the one-time offender did not meet certain 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.
Bishops no longer would enter into confidentiality agreements when settling civil lawsuits unless the victim insists.
The proposal also includes creating a national child protection office. The president of the conference would appoint a review board -- including parents -- to examine annually how dioceses were responding to abuse, and bishops would create support programs for victims in each diocese.