US bishops will approve policy of zero tolerance


THE US: US Catholic bishops were last night set to approve a new zero tolerance policy requiring the laicisation of all abusing priests. While welcoming the move, victims' organisations remain disappointed by a less stringent approach to bishops' cover-ups.

A draft charter on protecting children, which was expected to be approved at the Dallas conference last night, was amended to specify that for "every single act of sexual abuse of a minor, past present or future, offending deacons or priests will be permanently removed from the ministry".

The unamended draft had allowed the possibility that past one-off offenders could be rehabilitated and the bishops rejected a compromise that would have allowed some to voluntarily withdraw from active ministry and work in a monastery or some other restricted setting, away from contact with children or young people.

The 285 bishops met in Dallas in plenary session yesterday after working behind closed doors into the early morning hours on the amended draft of the action plan.

In closed session on Thursday, the Boston Globe reports, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law apologised to fellow bishops for his own handling of the crisis.

But there were new indications yesterday that the Vatican will not approve the zero tolerance policy. Rome's approval is needed for the policy to be binding and one leading bishop, Cardinal William Egan of New York, has also warned here that "a national policy is one thing, but a local policy is the determining one."

Cardinal Roger Mahony, from Los Angeles, however, said the policy was being adopted on a two-year trial basis and would not be submitted to Rome until then.

On the other side of the argument, lay activists and victims' organisations seem unlikely to be satisfied with attempts by the bishops to police themselves. Yesterday afternoon the conference was reported to be heading towards a policy of "peer review" through the establishment of regional boards which would monitor the extent to which individual dioceses enforce the new guidelines.

The new draft report says that a list of non-complying dioceses will be published. There are also suggestions that archbishops would be asked to report to the Vatican individual bishops who were not.

Critics of the bishops say such measures do not go far enough in terms of requiring resignations from bishops involved in cover-ups and they say lay involvement at all levels is crucial to restoring faith in the church.

A leading member of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Mr Mark Serrano, told journalists, "Embarrassment is not an incentive for doing the right thing morally."

The National Catholic Reporter has reported that the policy paper is unlikely to be approved by Rome. Its Rome reporter quotes Belgium's Cardinal Jan Schotte as expressing concern that the bishops were acting too hastily under media pressure and "forgetting general principles".