CHICAGO – The Vatican could apply a 10-year statute of limitations on sexual abuse accusations against priests in a revised version of the U.S. bishops' sex abuse policy, Cardinal Francis George said.
The cardinal Thursday returned from Rome, where an American-Vatican commission reviewed the sex abuse policy the nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved this summer in hopes of stemming the clerical sex abuse crisis.
The previous policy called for removing priests after a credible molestation claim was made, regardless of when it happened. The changes allow Rome to determine the cases in which the statute of limitations would be applied, George said.
The suggested revisions also include a new system of tribunals to be set up to determine whether a priest is guilty, George said.
George contends the policy's key elements remained intact after this week's meetings in Rome.
"I think it strengthens the ability of victims to be allowed to report abuse and not feel intimidated," George said after landing at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
"The goal of protection by removing is still intact," he said.
Neither church officials at the Vatican nor in the United States have released the revisions to the policy, though George gave a few details Thursday, occasionally referring to the seven-page document he was carrying.
Victims groups are worried the church will severely weaken the strictest parts of the bishops' plan. George said it "isn't fair" to say the policy has been watered down.
"What we achieved is a kind of clarity," he said. The commission "crossed the t's and dotted the i's."
George indicated the procedures for reporting abuse are clearer and more detailed than in the previous document, and that the definition of sex abuse also has been clarified.
After approving the policy in Dallas, the U.S. hierarchy sought Vatican approval to make the plan binding on all American bishops. But the Vatican withheld its approval because of conflicts with church law. Included in those conflicts was the issue of the statute of limitations because canon law says victims cannot bring cases more than 10 years after they turn 18.
The joint commission -- including George -- was set up to iron out that and other differences between the two sides.
U.S. bishops will vote on the recommended changes at their national meeting Nov. 11-14 in Washington, then will return the policy to the Vatican for a final review.
George said the document will be released to the public before that meeting.