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Bishops Likely to Renew Abuse Policy

Times Staff Writer

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were expected today to reauthorize a 3-year-old “zero tolerance” policy to prevent the sexual abuse of minors and to weed offending clergy out of public ministry.

But protesters outside the Fairmont Hotel, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is holding its annual spring meeting, charged that proposed changes in the policy would weaken the church’s commitment to safeguard children and youth from sexual predators.

The draft also came under attack Thursday from Illinois Appellate Justice Anne M. Burke, former chairwoman of the National Review Board, a lay panel that was created by bishops in 2002 to oversee how well they carried out their promises and has criticized some of their actions. Burke, in an interview, said the board’s independence would be “undercut or at least watered down” by some of the changes, such as the possibility that it could one day include clergy.

But bishops staunchly denied the charges Thursday and said they were as committed as ever to safeguard children and youth from sexual predators within the church. They are expected to extend the policy for another five years.

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A key figure in the ongoing sexual abuse issue will be Archbishop Emeritus William J. Levada of San Francisco, prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- a position Pope Benedict XVI held before being elected pontiff. The congregation has jurisdiction over such cases.

Levada, in an interview with reporters, said Thursday that he felt the tension between the Christian teaching of forgiveness and the need to hold offending priests accountable for their crimes.

“I think it’s [tension] sharpened very much in this particular constellation of issues because we’re dealing here with victims of a crime that is contrary to the very purpose and nature of the church and its priesthood,” he said in a hotel suite overlooking the Chicago River.

Some accompanying commentary on the proposal to be voted on today notes that some bishops hoped that priests who had abused children many years ago might be returned to some form of ministry not involving children. However, Levada said he didn’t think that was a strong sentiment among bishops.

Keeping the total ban, he said, “is a part of keeping faith with the people whom we serve, to say that a priest who was guilty of that kind of a lapse, even a long time ago, that we are going to tell you that that priest is not going to be in public ministry and at your service again.”

The vote today comes three years after the bishops, during an escalating sexual abuse scandal that eventually engulfed much of the church in the U.S. as well as in several other countries, adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That charter, adopted in Dallas in 2002, requires the removal of abusive priests and deacons from the Catholic ministry and establishes local review boards, composed of lay members and clergy to review allegations.

Since then, church-sponsored studies have found that 11,750 people in the United States had made credible accusations of child sexual abuse against 5,148 clergy since 1950. The church has paid out more than $1 billion to settle claims since then. Millions of dollars in additional claims are pending.

Bishops said Thursday they had lived up to their word to enforce strict rules against sexual abuse of minors and penalties for those who broke the law, and to provide help for victims.

“We have kept those promises, with some difficulty, and sometimes unevenly -- but those promises have been kept,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told the gathering of 262 bishops Thursday. George was a member of a U.S.-Vatican committee that met in Rome recently to reach agreement on revisions in implementing the charter.

Much of the controversy Thursday focused on the National Review Board. Though its members frequently identified it over the last 2 1/2 years as “an independent lay review board,” the proposal being considered here said that was not the case.

Under the revisions, the National Review Board is defined as a “consultative” body that is to work cooperatively with the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. The board now reports to the president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, which appoints the members, but the plan calls for the panel to also report to the bishops’ executive council. In addition, the plan also stresses that clergy might be added to the panel.

Burke criticized such changes Thursday. “The fact that we were able to be independent [in practice] gave much more credibility, ultimately, to our reports. It’s a double-edged sword for bishops. I understand that. But it only worked to their benefit,” Burke said. “Now they are trying to undercut or at least water down the fact of this independence.”

She cautioned that could lead to attempts by bishops to change or affect board findings before they were made public. A study last year on the extent of sexual abuse was given to bishops only 48 hours before a news conference, she said.

Church critics have been especially angered at how some bishops had moved abusive priests from parish to parish without telling churchgoers.

On Thursday, protesters outside the meeting held placards reading: “Guilty Bishops Must Resign!”

Asked if bishops should be held accountable for such transfers, Levada said he did not think bishops who moved priests in good faith should be faulted. Less was known years ago about the disorder of pedophilia, even among medical experts, he said.

“Do people understand when they’re asking for this kind of accountability that they are really expecting that bishops in 1985 or whenever ... [had to] have had some kind of divine illumination?” he asked. He said he knew of no bishop who “consciously reassigned a priest whom he believed was going to abuse a child again.” But he said he was open to being informed about such cases if they existed.

Levada said he expected to meet with the pope weekly, more than any other Vatican official except the Vatican secretary of state.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said Thursday that as a result of the church’s increased vigilance, since January the archdiocese had found 20 volunteers working in parishes and schools who were registered sex offenders. They were found after schools and parishes were asked by the archdiocese to check websites for the names of registered sex offenders in their ZIP codes. The offenders’ volunteer services were ended, Mahony said.

“We simply don’t want any danger of them being near children,” Mahony said. However, he emphasized that there was no indication that those 20 had abused any children they may have met on church activities.

In addition, he said that 7,000 clergy and church employees, as well as 6,500 schoolteachers and other personnel, were fingerprinted. But he said no past arrests for child abuse turned up.


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