CHICAGO – America's Roman Catholic (search) bishops will keep their pledge to protect children from sexually abusive priests as they revise their discipline plan for offenders, a key prelate said at a national church meeting Thursday.
Bishops overseeing a review of the three-year-old policy have recommended that dioceses continue permanently barring guilty clergy from all church work. Some Catholic leaders have been concerned that the punishment is too severe.
"No one wants to permit children to be abused in the church," said Chicago Cardinal Francis George (search), who lead a team of U.S. bishops who worked with Vatican officials on the revisions. "It's a source of great shame for all of us, a source of scandal for the faithful and for the world."
The bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse (search) spent months soliciting comment on the policy.
"Overall there was definite expression that the `one-strike' policy needs to be retained for now," the committee wrote in recommendations presented Thursday.
Still, the panel noted that "many, perhaps a majority," of prelates hoped that they could eventually allow men who are truly rehabilitated back into ministry — an idea victims vehemently oppose.
The bishops are expected to discuss and vote on the revisions Friday.
Church leaders adopted the discipline plan, called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in June 2002, with the mandate that it be revisited after two years. The policy remained in effect though the review concluded later than planned.
The original charter was drafted as scandal was consuming the church. Catholics were demanding bishops resign, state prosecutors were convening grand juries to investigate and hundreds of new abuse claims were pouring in.
Bishops were desperate to restore trust in their leadership, and some Catholic leaders said the due process rights of priests were sacrificed in the process.
They complained the charter violated Catholic belief in redemption and forgiveness, and dictated a draconian, one-size-fits-all response for cases they said varied dramatically.
Victims countered that bishops who had allowed predators to stay in the priesthood could not be trusted to decide whether a clergyman was cured. Hundreds of accused clergy have been removed from the ministry in the last three years, although most of their alleged wrongdoing occurred decades ago.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said church leaders have no choice but to oust guilty priests.
"The wounds are too fresh and deep, financial costs are too high and lay people are too upset for them to go back on such a simple, elementary proposition," Clohessy said.
Studies commissioned by the bishops found more than 11,500 claims had been filed against priests over five decades. An Associated Press review found abuse has cost dioceses more than $1 billion in settlements and other expenses since 1950, and tens of millions of dollars in additional claims are pending.
The bishops' committee has recommended leaving the original policy largely intact for five years. If maintained, guilty priests would not only be barred from church work, but would also be prohibited from wearing priestly garb and celebrating Mass publicly. The worst offenders could be forced out of the priesthood entirely. Dioceses nationwide would continue the child protection programs they enacted over the past five years.
Still, some of the recommended changes worry reform groups.
The proposed revisions attempt to rein in the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel the bishops formed, emphasizing the board remains under the bishops' authority and could someday include clergy. Some past members had openly challenged church leaders.
Also, the definition of sex abuse would be changed to link it directly to the Sixth Commandment, which is interpreted as condemning any sexual activity outside marriage.
Bishops would also no longer be required to seek a waiver of the statute of limitations from Vatican officials in cases of old abuse claims. Prelates could decide to seek such a waiver or use their own authority to discipline a guilty priest.