CHICAGO U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, revisiting the reforms they adopted three years ago at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis, are expected to extend their unprecedented policy of permanently barring offenders from church work.
Yet, victims groups, protesting outside the bishops' meeting Thursday, said prelates could not be trusted to enforce their own plan. The advocates accused church leaders of failing to remove all guilty priests from parishes.
''We take little comfort in the fact that 'zero-tolerance' remains the official policy when some bishops still ignore that pledge and many, if not most, would rather not have it at all,'' said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Church leaders adopted the discipline plan in June 2002, with the mandate that it be revisited. A bishops' committee has recommended revisions that leave the policy largely intact, including maintaining the ban on guilty priests returning to ministry.
The bishops are scheduled to vote on the recommendations today, and if approved, the policy would stay in place for the next five years.
The committee acknowledged that ''many, perhaps a majority,'' of bishops hope to someday ease the ban, which they believe violates Catholic teaching on redemption and treats every case equally no matter the severity of the offense.
However, the committee said church leaders agreed that now was not the time.
''No one wants to permit children to be abused in the church,'' said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who led a team of U.S. bishops who worked with Vatican officials on the revisions.
''It's a source of great shame for all of us, a source of scandal for the faithful and for the world.''
The abuse crisis erupted in January 2002 over revelations that many bishops had moved guilty priests among parishes without warning parents or police. Hundreds of accused priests have been removed from the ministry in the last three years.
When they wrote the discipline policy that year, bishops were desperate to restore trust in their leadership, and some Catholic leaders said the due process rights of priests were sacrificed in the process.
The Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which represents about one-third of the 43,000 American priests, was among those who had protested, but he said Thursday that he understood that it was too soon to change it.
''What my hope would be is, with time, we'll be able to moderate this so we can deal with individual cases so some discretion can be applied,'' he said.
Although the proposed revisions make few significant changes, some of the recommendations worry reform groups.
The modifications emphasize that the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel the bishops formed, remains under the bishops' authority and could someday include clergy. Some critics do not want clergy on the panel, and some past members had angered church leaders by openly challenging bishops.
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