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Catholic bishops weaken sex-abuse regulations
Scripps Howard News Service


June 16, 2005

When they meet Thursday in Chicago, U.S. Catholic bishops will consider revisions in the their sexual abuse policies that some say weaken enforcement.

While the proposed revisions to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People do keep the "one strike" policy, they add that priests should be presumed innocent.

Some victims' advocates say the proposed changes give the bishops excessive latitude about reporting abuses to civil authorities.

Among the other proposed changes to the document:

-The role for the National Review Board, the independent lay body, commissioned to oversee the child protection policy, would be reduced.

- Bishops will be allowed to self-audit compliance with those policies, unlike the current external auditors visiting each diocese.

- Abuse will be redefined and framed through the Sixth Commandment, which prohibits any sexual activity outside marriage.

"The short version is we're looking at a fairly vague, weak document being watered down one more time," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

He cited a proposed change to rules about reporting allegations to civil authorities. Current rules say they "must" be reported; the proposed change would say bishops "may" report them.

In some cases, bishops could decline to send past cases to authorities unless the Vatican approved a waiver giving permission.

"It is an enormous backwards step," Clohessy said.

The proposed revisions reflect that, "in the actual circumstances of each diocese, not all these steps may be necessary or feasible," according to comments included in a before-and-after comparison prepared for the bishops.

Also, bishops are given greater freedom when conducting the annual compliance audit. Since the charter was adopted in 2002, external auditors visited the dioceses to review policy, procedure and records.

But, according to the internal notes about the proposed changes, audits weren't intended for on-site annual evaluations. The National Review Board urged the on-site visits.

And the composition and power of that board, a lay group of Catholics appointed to oversee the Office of Child and Youth Protection, appears to be weakening.

"The proposed text also clarifies that, like diocesan review boards, the (National Review Board) is a consultative body. It is not an 'independent lay review board,' " the revisions' authors wrote.

The board in the future could include clergy, and candidates must be endorsed by their local bishop.

The first incarnation of that board offered vocal critics of the bishops. Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating resigned as chairman of the board after comparing the church to the mafia. Bill Burleigh, chairman of the E.W. Scripps board, is also a former member.

That board was a strong advocate for the "one strike" policy.

"Many, perhaps a majority, wish (the one-strike policy) could be modified in the future, especially in the cases of limited offense committed many years ago followed by an apparently unblemished record," according to notes accompanying a draft of the report.

The issue of gay priests, widely expected to be addressed, is noticeably absent from the changes. A companion document, the fifth edition of "Program of Priestly Formation" includes only one mention of it, deferring to Vatican advisory.

That 1961 Vatican advisory, which has directed the discussion for more than 40 years, reads, "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty."

A bishops-sponsored study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice indicated 81 percent of abuse cases involved male victims.


Contact Phillip Elliott of The Evansville Courier in Indiana at

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