U.S. Bishops to Revisit Priest Sex Abuse Policy
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
In Chicago, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meets today. The bishops are supposed to re-examine some of the policies adopted three years ago after the priest sex abuse stories started breaking. They may now change the procedure for defrocking a priest. NPR's Jason DeRose reports.
JASON DeROSE reporting:
The debate comes down to a single word.
Monsignor RON JENKINS (Canon Lawyer, Special Consultant to US Bishops): The current norms state that when a bishop does refer a case to Rome, he must ask for a waiver of the statute of limitations. The proposed revision says the bishop may ask for.
DeROSE: Monsignor Ron Jenkins is a canon lawyer and a special consultant to the US Bishops on the proposed changes to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children. He says the switch from `must' to `may' clarifies confusion over ecclesiastical law. The legal reality is that sometimes victims refuse to testify in internal church trials, and so asking the Vatican for a waiver of the 10-year statute of limitations isn't necessary. And then, says Jenkins, there's the practical reality.
Monsignor JENKINS: There are some cases where the accused is a very elderly man, effectively sick, dying, indeed, in a nursing home or something. So are you going to ask for a waiver of the statute on limitations in order to have a trial for someone who is not legally capable of standing trial?
Ms. BARBARA BLAINE (President, Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests): To put it kindly, it's disappointing.
DeROSE: Barbara Blaine is the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Ms. BLAINE: Let's be clear. Back in 2002 when the bishops instituted their charter, they committed themselves to openness, transparency and zero tolerance. Their policy, from our perspective, was extremely weak. And now since then, at every opportunity, the bishops have back-stepped from that initial weak position.
DeROSE: Outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting, victims and their family members have gathered. Some, such as Dave Clohessy, are holding poster-sized photos of themselves at the age they were abused.
Mr. DAVE CLOHESSY: We're here in a symbolic way just to send a message to America's Catholic bishops who, starting this week, will be meeting, debating policies and procedures while largely ignoring our pain.
DeROSE: But the newly named executive director of the US bishops' Office of Child Protection, Teresa Kettelkamp, say protesters overlook how far the Catholic Church has come in just three years since the bishops adopted the charter.
Ms. TERESA KETTELKAMP (Executive Director, Office of Child Protection): In that time, the National Review Board has been established. The Office of Child and Youth Protection has done a national study. Every diocese throughout the nation, there's policies and procedures for dealing with allegations. They have safe environment programs. They have policies of openness and transparency. So I'm amazed at how much has been accomplished.
DeROSE: Yet some observers, such as Yeshiva University law Professor Marci Hamilton, author of the new book "God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law," say all these new policies have had little success in changing public opinion while hundreds of lawsuits are playing out across the country.
Ms. MARCI HAMILTON (Professor, Yeshiva University): The PR value of it has been undermined because of the litigation going around the country in which the facts are coming out. So in the end, PR is not as strong as the truth.
DeROSE: Hamilton says while the charter may help prevent future abuse, it's civil and criminal courts that will in the end bring abusive priests to justice. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Chicago.
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