Originally published June 15, 2002

By an overwhelming majority, the American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church yesterday adopted an unprecedented policy obliging them to remove from ministry any priest or deacon who sexually abuses a minor.

However, the bishops drew short of requiring that every abuser be automatically stripped of his clerical status as a priest, saying it could be inappropriately harsh treatment for some retired or ailing priests.

Those abusers allowed to remain technically priests are forbidden to wear clerical garb or say Mass or present themselves to the public as priests.

The bishops voted, 239-13, to approve a binding charter on sex abuse that declares that "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor – past, present of future – the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry and will not receive a future assignment. "

And they made it mandatory that any allegation of abuse be reported immediately to the proper authorities, even where state law does not require such reporting.

When the vote was over, the bishops stood and applauded, bringing an emotional end to two extraordinary days in which they were scolded, lectured and dressed down by a succession of withering critiques.

For the first time in a public forum, they had heard victims of priestly abuse tearfully describe their experiences and the lasting scars they had caused. It was a remarkable gathering – somber, painful and humbling to a group that had previously insulated itself from such reproach.

Moments after the vote, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told his colleagues: "From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States. "

However, David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, voiced skepticism and disappointment, saying the policy did not go far enough.

"The document is the best document the church has put out on this issue," said Clohessy, who had addressed the bishops' conference Thursday. "Is it enough? We don't think so. Will it be implemented? We'll simply have to wait and see. "

SNAP officials were disappointed that not all past abuser priests would be defrocked, and expressed anger that the bishops did not censure fellow bishops who had protected abuser priests.

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia urged "strong support" for the policy.

"The core issue of this document is the provision that one abuse by a priest is enough to remove him from all ministry," he said moments before the vote. "We must give assurances to our faithful . . . that our children will be safe as much as humanly possible. "

Adoption of the document was essential for the "good of the church," Cardinal Bevilacqua said.

The document, titled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," seeks to reassure the American public and the Vatican that the prelates are committed to halting the nightmarish series of clergy sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church with distressing regularity since 1985 – what it calls a "crisis without precedent in our times. "

Review and adoption of the charter was the only item on the agenda for the summer meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which meets twice a year and typically makes advisory pronouncements on matters of church and public policy.

In 1992, the conference adopted an advisory policy for responding to clerical sex abuse that recommended abuser priests be removed from contact with minors, but a number of bishops – including Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston – ignored it, and sometimes moved offender priests from parish to parish to avoid scandal.

The new policy does not stipulate removal or other sanctions for diocesan bishops who ignore its provisions, but some observers said public opinion, the expectations of fellow bishops, and the will of Pope John Paul – who can remove a bishop – would enforce its adherence.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said that he anticipated that the Vatican would view a bishop who failed to abide by the document with the same disapproval as one who taught erroneously on matters of faith and morals, and that the bishop would risk rapid removal from office.

Although the document applies only to the crimes of diocesan priests and not to those committed by religious-order priests and brothers, the conference agreed to present the charter to the heads of those orders as a possible model they could adopt.

The charter calls for creation of diocesan review boards, made up mostly of laypeople, who would advise bishops on matters of sex abuse. It also calls for creation of a National Review Board led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and including lawyer Bob Bennett of Washington and Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Court of Appeals, an expert on child welfare.

The charter also creates an Office for Child and Youth Protection within the conference, centered at its headquarters in Washington. The office would be charged with producing annual reports on the status of the clergy sex-abuse problem and the implementation of the charter.

The Holy See must determine that the charter conforms to canon law, a process called recognitio that could take more than a year. Concerned that any delay in their enforcing the charter would provoke Catholic laity and victims, the bishops yesterday agreed that its final line would read: "We Bishops commit ourselves to its immediate implementation. "

What It Means

The policy will:

* Bar priests who commit sexual abuse from parish work and all public ministry.

* Compel bishops to report all allegations of abuse of minors to proper authorities.

* Create a national Office for Child and Youth Protection.

What's next?

* The Vatican must recognize the charter, but bishops said it would take effect immediately.