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VATICAN LETTER Jan-28-2005 (1,000 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Reviewing the abuse norms: U.S.-Vatican talks expected to be positive

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Two years after adopting special norms for dealing with priestly sex abusers, U.S. bishops and Vatican officials are sitting down in early February to review how the new policies have worked and to consider possible revisions.

Vatican officials described the meeting as a simple consultation. They said the talks were expected to be positive, reflecting progress made since the first major U.S.-Vatican meetings on sex abuse in 2002.

"The climate has matured. The norms have been in place for two years, and a lot of cases have been handled. On all sides, there is recognition that much has been accomplished," said one Vatican official.

The "Essential Norms" laid out a strict policy on priestly sex abuse, providing for removal from ministry or laicization of priests who have sexually abused minors. The Vatican approved the norms on an experimental basis for a two-year period beginning in March 2003; new Vatican approval, called a "recognitio," would presumably have to be given again this year, whether or not revisions are made.

Some Vatican sources said they do not expect major changes to the norms. They pointed to improved coordination on sex abuse cases over the last two years between U.S. bishops and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was given special competence over such offenses.

Other Vatican officials, however, said they anticipated a re-airing of earlier objections to some elements of the norms and the U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" -- including the basic issue of "zero tolerance" for offending priests and their removal from ministry after a single act of sexual abuse.

Still others at the Vatican thought the talks would touch on wider ecclesial issues raised by the new U.S. sex abuse policies, such as the role of the National Review Board, audits of diocesan compliance and even the question of diocesan bankruptcies.

"The only sure thing is that it will be a very interesting discussion," said one church official.

The participants were expected to include most of the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials on the mixed commission that ironed out language of the norms in October 2002. They include Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago; Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill.; and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the head of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, was also expected to join the talks, sources said.

The Vatican members were expected to include Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops. A representative from the congregation that deals with religious orders also may attend.

The norms, which were approved as a particular law for U.S. dioceses, provide the legislative underpinning to make the new sex abuse policies legally binding on dioceses throughout the country.

Some at the Vatican felt U.S. bishops were acting under tremendous public pressure when they drafted the norms in 2002, and that the strict measures adopted did not sufficiently protect the rights of accused priests. That issue may resurface at the February meeting.

"Some of these canonical difficulties have been resolved in practice, so these initial fears may have been allayed. But I think there are still some underlying issues that will probably be fair game in the discussion," said one Vatican source.

Some canon lawyers believe, for example, that the very definition of sexual abuse in the norms is ambiguous and should be refined, based on the experience of cases handled over the last two years.

One Vatican source said he expected the commission to give considerable attention to the broader pastoral consequences of the norms and charter. For one thing, some Vatican officials have been uncomfortable with the prominent role of the National Review Board over the last two years and want to make sure it is understood as a consultative body, not an oversight agency.

An overriding issue is how the particular church law in the United States -- the "Essential Norms" -- might better be reconciled with the church's universal law. Here, too, there is a wide spectrum of thought at the Vatican. Some would argue that the U.S. norms infringe on some of the rights afforded accused priests under universal church law.

But others say the interesting thing about the last two years is that U.S. dioceses, working under the "Essential Norms," and the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, working under universal law, have been able to operate together harmoniously in processing the cases.

One reason is that, shortly after the U.S. norms were drafted, Pope John Paul II gave the doctrinal congregation special faculties to expedite the trial and possible laicization of priests who have sexually abused minors anywhere in the world. In certain "grave and clear cases," the doctrinal congregation can now dismiss the priest from the priesthood by decree, without a formal church trial.

Some at the Vatican, therefore, question whether a particular law for U.S. sex abuse cases is still needed, or whether the church's universal law now has all the tools to deal just as effectively with these cases.

The dominant expectation at the Vatican, however, seems to be that the U.S. norms will be discussed at the Vatican, perhaps tweaked a bit, discussed further by U.S. bishops and, in the end, receive another "recognitio" from the Vatican.

The last time this happened, church leaders had to fight a media perception of "winners" and "losers" at every step of the consultation process. This time around, Vatican sources said, one goal will be to show a unified front to the world, emphasizing the substantial areas of agreement shared by the bishops and Vatican officials when it comes to sexual abuse and downplaying any differences.


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