On Wednesday the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Washington, voted 246 to 7, with six abstentions, to accept revisions to a policy they adopted in Dallas in June.
A number of bishops, the Holy See, and thousands of priests were uncomfortable with the Dallas document because of a lack of due process rights for those accused of sexual abuse of a minor, the Rev. Peter Stravinskas, editor of Catholic Answers, told United Press International.
"I always get a kick out the media's suggestion that the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex," Stravinskas said. "We have about 45 items on the agenda, but the only thing the secular media wants to talk about is sex."
The priest named a new document on the liturgy, a new English translation of the Roman missal and the rites of ordination, reasserting support for Catholic schools, outreach to Hispanic Catholics, and the bishops' statement on the 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade that the Supreme Court decision has left a "trail of broken hearts."
Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Lviv thanked the American church for its moral and material support for the church in Ukraine. The cardinal said when he was brought to the United States as a child in 1949, his parents said America was a country that was just and good. Since then its moral authority has waned, Husar said. It's the job of the American Catholic bishops to re-establish the moral tenor of the United States.
Stravinskas said Husar was referring to such things as divorce, abortion, the breakdown of the family and "alternative lifestyles."
At a press conference, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, said the tribunals will focus on evidence and the determination of fact. With Vatican approval, the tribunals establish "a stable juridical framework to protect young people and help victims by ensuring that no one with a history of abuse is in public ministry or, perhaps, in the ordained priesthood," George said.
In a phone interview, the Rev. C. John McCloskey, head of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, explained the difference between being removed from public ministry and being laicized, or "defrocked."
Serial abusers such as John Geoghan in Boston have been defrocked. They are not called "father," may not say Mass, and are forbidden to act as a priest in any way. Those who have been removed from public ministry may be given a place to stay, may say Mass privately and be kept on the rolls "as clerics in the back office."
Thomas G. Doran, bishop of Rockford, Ill., estimated that the courts would be in place within a year or 18 months. The president of Catholic University, which has a faculty of canon law, has promised to help the U.S. bishops, he said. The Canon Law Society of America has also expressed an interest in helping.
William E. Lori, bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., said Wednesday's vote represents a strengthening of the commitment bishops expressed in Dallas to remove from active ministry a priest who has abused a minor even once "because we now have a consistent policy which is on the way to becoming law for the church in the United States."
A reporter asked if a tribunal could reinstate a known abuser.
George replied that the tribunal determines fact, guilt or innocence, and imposes a sentence independently of the bishop, who retains administrative authority. No matter the outcome of the trial, the bishop must have confidence in the priest. Bishops also can appeal court decisions and refuse to have someone resident in his diocese.
Lori said even if a tribunal were to acquit a priest or deacon, a bishop -- if he believed the accused to be guilty -- could still deprive him of an assignment. "A juridical process is not necessarily the end of the story," he said.
Only the bishop, not the tribunal, can give priest the right to minister in a diocese, said Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas.
Tribunals will be more public than diocesan review boards. "The bishop doesn't investigate. The review board does," George said. ... "There is the possibility that the accusation is so patently false that the work of the review board would expose it."
Church law requires a victim to come forward by age 28, although bishops may ask the Vatican for a waiver in special cases.
Galante said the documents mean no bishop should excuse himself from following civil law even though the church has its own legal system. "This is an exhortation and a reminder that, contrary to what happened in the past, these are not purely internal matters," he said, even in jurisdictions with no absolute mandate to report accusations.
Citing secular statutes of limitations, George said, "Ninety-eight percent of these cases are not actionable in criminal law." Where it is actionable, particularly when the victim is still a minor, the civil authorities come in. "The rest of America might have the impression that we have all these priests who are still actionable ... who have been given a pass and protected by the church. I don't know of any cases like that," the cardinal said.
Doran said it may be useful to have several regional or national tribunals to ensure impartial judges and that the cases are handled in a timely manner.
Canon law requires written tribunals, Doran added, in contrast with English common law, which requires oral trials. But the process is not by nature secret, and knowledge stemming from the tribunal is available to anyone who has a right to it. One could ask whether the case was handled properly and with dispatch, whether the promoter of justice (prosecutor) and the defense counsel did their jobs, whether the judge imposed a sentence base on fact and what that sentence was. Doran did not explain who might or might not have the right to the information.
George said: "The process is known, and it is public in that sense, but the proceedings are confidential."
Bishop Michael Wiwchar, apostolic administrator of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy based in Chicago, told UPI that most of those involved in the tribunals will be laity. The tribunals are being set up now, he said. Small dioceses that can't afford their own tribunals will have agreements with larger ones.
George and other prelates referred several times to the painful nature of the crisis that broke over the American church in the past year. "The terrible sin and shame that fills us all with dismay and scandal," the cardinal said. "It's very hard to talk about it."