BELLEVUE, Wash. – The head of the child protection committee for U.S. Roman Catholic bishops insisted Wednesday that no significant changes were needed in the church's abuse prevention policy despite recent revelations that two dioceses allowed priests accused of misconduct to remain in jobs where they had access to young people.
Bishop Blasé Cupich of Spokane, Wash., who is overseeing a review of the plan, said the missteps appeared to involve problems of compliance, not weaknesses in the document itself. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the policy, called the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," in 2002 as the clergy sex abuse crisis spread through every American diocese. The centerpiece of the reforms was a promise that bishops would bar credibly accused clergy from any church work.
"I would point out that there are nearly 200 dioceses in the United States," said Cupich, chairman of the bishops' child safety committee. "The charter, as is, works."
Cupich briefly presented the minor revisions to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during a meeting in Bellevue and urged his fellow church leaders to accept the suggestions. Bishops scheduled a private debate of the document for a four-hour, closed-door meeting Wednesday night. A vote was expected Thursday.
The national policy came under renewed scrutiny in February, when a grand jury accused the Archdioceses of Philadelphia of keeping about three dozen credibly accused priests in ministry.
A high-ranking archdiocesan official who oversaw priests was also charged with child endangerment for allegedly transferring accused clergy among parishes. He is the first senior church official facing such a charge in the decades-long abuse scandal.
Then last month, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, acknowledged that he kept in ministry a priest who took pornographic pictures of girls in his parish. Finn also acknowledged that he did not read a letter that a Catholic school principal had written a year before the priest was arrested warning about the cleric's behavior.
In both cases, questions were raised about whether bishops had taken the cases to their local review boards, which church leaders created in each diocese to help them evaluate abuse claims. Following the grand jury report, Ana Maria Catanzaro, the head of the local Philadelphia review board, said her archdiocese had kept some cases from the board and had "failed miserably at being open and transparent." Observers, both inside and outside the church, wondered whether similar lapses were occurring in other dioceses.
These problems were not addressed in the discussion Wednesday. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali did not attend the Bellevue meeting. His spokeswoman said he is in the Czech Republic representing the pope at a celebration of St. John Neumann. Finn did attend, but did not speak from the floor after Cupich made his presentation.
Under the proposed changes, child pornography would be added to the definition of sex abuse and church leaders would be instructed to tell police and the pope's U.S. ambassador about any abuse allegations against a fellow bishop. However, most of the changes proposed by Cupich's committee would simply update the document to clarify that it has been in place for nine years.
Ohio federal Judge Michael Merz, a former chairman of the bishops' National Review Board and a survivor of sex abuse, helped with the review and said he personally would have liked to have seen some changes that would have strengthened the role of the diocesan review boards. But Merz cautioned, "I wouldn't generalize from the experience of the board in Philadelphia." He said he has spoken with members of other diocesan review boards who have said they have good communication with their bishops.
Enforcement of the national policy has always been a contentious issue. Bishops answer only to the pope. No U.S. bishop has ever been disciplined for failing to protect children from an abuser and bishops rarely publicly criticize fellow prelates over how they respond to abuse claims.
"We don't have the ability or authority to sanction anyone," Cupich said in a news conference.
But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that for years, bishops told his group the church would never adopt a national abuse prevention policy, so Clohessy doesn't accept arguments that nothing can be done to ensure compliance.
"Where there is a will there is a way, especially in a monarchy," Clohessy said. "The policy certainly could clearly say that church supervisors who don't fingerprint workers quickly and conduct background checks and provide real prevention training will be demoted."
Separately during the meeting, the bishops will vote on a statement explaining the church's opposition to physician-assisted suicide. The bishops had also planned to discuss a much-debated voting guide called "Faithful Citizenship," which they release ahead of each presidential election to explain Catholic teaching on key issues such as abortion. A spokeswoman for the bishops said that discussion of the guide was "off the public agenda." She would not elaborate.
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/