Vatican officials are expected to announce today that they have refused to approve parts of the policy that infringe on the rights of priests to due process contained in the Code of Canon Law, the regulations that govern the billion-member Roman Catholic Church, according to reports by the Associated Press and The New York Times.
U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly during a June meeting in Dallas to approve a new policy, called a charter, that permanently removes from ministry clergy who have committed a single act of sexual abuse, no matter when it occurred, effectively eliminating a statute of limitations in canon law.
The new policy also forbade an offending clergy member to wear the Roman collar identifying him as a priest or to refer to himself as "father."
In addition to its belief that the zero-tolerance policy might lead to the removal of some priests without due process, the Vatican was concerned about the lack of a statute of limitations and the broad definition of child sexual abuse, according to the new reports.
Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse immediately denounced the Vatican action.
"This is dangerous backsliding when what we need is real moral courage. Abusive priests will see this as a green light to deny their guilt, stay in ministry or fight to win their jobs back," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
The Rev. Gary Hayes, who was sexually abused by a priest as a youth, said he sympathized with the concerns of his fellow priests over their right to due process, but said the protection of children must come first.
"I wish they would cite some canons that tell us exactly what the rights of the abused children are," said Hayes, an executive board member of the Linkup, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse. "The rights of innocent children and parents and their families have been violated for years, decades. And so I'd like to hear my brother priests balance those kinds of comments by saying the bishops have trampled a lot of peoples' rights over the years."
Representatives of priests and Catholic laity welcomed a move that they said would produce a fairer policy.
The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, called the Vatican response "good news."
"It'll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment," said Silva, whose organization claims about half of the 46,000 U.S. priests as members.
"At Voice of the Faithful, we stress that the proposed charter must protect the rights of priests as well as the rights of victims," Emerton said. "This decision today is going to place more pressure on the American bishops to work with the laity to establish an effective system for protection."
Cardinal William H. Keeler declined to comment on the news reports yesterday.
But a spokesman said Keeler remains committed to the policies the bishops approved in Dallas.
Since that meeting, Keeler has issued a policy requiring all church employees who come into contact with children to have criminal background checks, and calling for reference checks for church volunteers.