Vatican, US bishops deliberate sexual abuse policy

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(Host) Last summer, American bishops endorsed a new policy that deals with sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The policy called for the removal from active ministry of any priest suspected of abusing a child. It also called on the church to cooperate with authorities and reach out to the victims and the parishioners of accused priests. The policy is being questioned by the Vatican, but Catholic officials in Vermont say that they will continue to put the policy in place.

VPRs’ Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Church officials say the Vatican’s refusal to endorse the American bishops’ policy doesn’t mean church leaders in Rome are necessarily rejecting it. Critics say the Vatican move has undone the progress made by the American bishops last summer in Dallas.

The policy they crafted calls for removing from a parish any priest who has a credible accusation of sexual misconduct against him, regardless of when the alleged incidents took place. It also calls on each diocese to establish a board dominated by lay people to review abuse allegations and to turn over information to authorities.

The Vatican has expressed reservations that the due process rights of priests might be violated and that parts of the policy may conflict with Canon Law. The Reverend Wendall Searles is vicar of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. Searles says the Vatican statement last week was not a surprise.

(Searles) “There was some expectation that there would be disagreement and that something like a fine-tuning process would be put into place. So in that sense, no it was not a great surprise.”

(Zind) The Vatican has called for a joint committee of church representatives from Rome and the U.S. to consider the bishops’ policy before it can be finalized. Searles says for the time being, the Burlington Diocese will continue to implement it instead of waiting for Vatican approval.

(Searles) “There’s been no decision to do that. Could there be? Yes, possibly.”

(Zind) Searles says some of the provisions of the bishops’ policy are already in place. Other changes are still being implemented. The Burlington Diocese will wait to make a decision on one important policy change. Until recently, the church has investigated sexual abuse allegations on its own, without involving authorities. Last spring, under pressure from the Vermont Attorney General’s office, Bishop Kenneth Angell agreed that, for the time being, the diocese would give authorities all information it receives about sexual abuse by priests without taking action on its own.

Searles says a final decision on whether to continue to immediately report allegations to authorities will have to wait until the joint committee makes a recommendation.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Burlington.

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