DALLAS, June 14 (UPI) -- The nation's Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a new charter to address sexually abusive priests Friday, but it fell short of the so-called zero tolerance policy sought by some church critics and victims rights groups.
After more than six hours of debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 239-13 to adopt the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a document drafted by the church leaders to address the growing sex abuse scandal.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the conference president from Belleville, Ill, said in the future no one who has sexually abused a child would work in the U.S. Catholic church.
"We bishops apologize for anyone harmed by one of our priests, and for our tragically slow response to recognizing the horror of sexual abuse," he said.
Gregory said the charter "stands as one of the greatest efforts anywhere" at addressing sexually abuse of minors. He said it would ensure that young people are protected, victims are heard, priests are trustworthy and bishops act responsibly.
Earlier in the day, the chairman of the ad hoc committee that drafted the original proposal called the Dallas meeting "a defining moment" for the church.
Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, of St. Paul-Minneapolis, called on the bishops "to once and for all put a plan in place and to commit ourselves to that plan so as to root out the cancer in our church."
Although many changes were recommended, he said, the bottom line remains the same.
"No priest or deacon who has abused a minor can remain in ministry," he said. "As good pastors attentive to those we serve we can do no less."
A controversial provision dealing with abusive priests was revised.
Priests would be banned from the ministry -- reciting mass or other church duties -- for even a single case of abuse, but they could continue as a priest unless removed by a bishop. It rule would apply to past, present or future cases of abuse.
Accused priests would be kept away from children and assigned to jobs away from regular church life.
Outside the meeting, Mark Serrano, a spokesman for Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, was critical of the new policy.
"They continue to believe that it's OK for sexual predators to be in the priesthood, to be brother priests," he said. "I believe that they look at these men as priests first and sexual offenders last."
The longest arguments during the debate were over the definition of sexual abuse and the language requiring the reporting of allegations of abuse to civil authorities.
An amendment was proposed to require reporting of only "credible" allegations because some bishops were concerned about unfounded charges ruining a priest. Others supported the language because they said the church must be more open than it has been in the past.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles defended the language as it stood.
"I have had two false accusations against me and I welcome the police investigation," he said.
The amendment to add "credible" to the article was voted down on a voice vote, as was a following amendment to change the wording to "non-frivolous" allegations.
The Vatican must approve the policy to make it a mandatory policy for all Catholic diocese in the United States. The conference adopted a sexual abuse policy 10 years ago but it was not mandatory and some bishops never implemented it.
There were also outside calls for more accountability from the bishops, who allegedly covered up abuse and shifted abusers from parish to parish, but no significant action was taken because experts say the authority to remove a bishop rests with the Vatican.
The conference did adopt language that will require it to review the policy in two years to determine if changes are needed.
The Catholic church has removed 218 priests this year because of child sex abuse allegations, but at least 34 of them remain in church jobs, according to a Washington Post survey. There are about 46,000 priests in the United States, according to the conference.