Vatican rejects parts of U.S. bishops’ sex abuse policy

? Elements of the toughened sex abuse policy approved by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops have been rejected at the Vatican, which has warned American prelates about going ahead with some reforms, church sources familiar with the Holy See’s response said Thursday.

The Vatican is particularly concerned some parts of the policy would violate the individual rights of accused clerics now protected under church law, the sources said.

Victims’ groups in the United States were outraged and said this showed the church despite being wracked by scandal was still more concerned about sheltering molester priests than helping children. But an organization representing American clerics said priests deserved every right to defend themselves against abuse claims.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said “this is further proof that, as we have long said, the church cannot reform itself.”

The Rev. Robert 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.

The Vatican response will be made public today.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other American prelates met Thursday with Pope John Paul II to discuss the abuse crisis. Members of the U.S. hierarchy declined interview requests.

Former Lawrence priest to be sentenced todayThe Rev. Dennis Schmitz, a former Lawrence priest, is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. today. He pleaded guilty Sept. 4 in Douglas County District Court to taking indecent liberties with a child in fall 1998.

At least 300 American priests have been removed from their ministries since the abuse scandal erupted in January with the case of a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston who was reassigned even after molestation complaints surfaced.

Responding to the abuse crisis, U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved the new policy at a meeting in June. But ever since, Vatican officials and U.S. church lawyers have raised objections to parts of the plan, arguing they may violate the due process rights of priests.

Some priests who have been removed from their posts have already appealed to the Vatican for reinstatement.

Still, Vatican officials and top U.S. churchmen had said they expected the Holy See would go along with them anyway, on a trial basis. Full Vatican approval had not been expected, and the American bishops may see this response as encouraging for their efforts to stamp out sexual abuse among clergy.

The Vatican sources stressed the entire plan had not been rejected and that it could be viewed as a work in progress to satisfy the various objections. A church source said a joint commission of U.S. and Vatican officials would be formed to resolve the problems.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and a Vatican expert, said the response was already being interpreted in different ways Thursday to “set the tone” for how it would be received today.

“Those who do not like the charter will tell you that the Vatican has rejected the norms,” he said. “Those who support the bishops’ charter will tell you that the Vatican has accepted the norms.”

The Vatican’s response is said to be short on specifics. Nevertheless, it is recommending the bishops be cautious in enacting the more controversial sections of the policy, the sources said.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify the various elements that the Vatican opposed. But they made it clear they dealt with provisions regarding the rights of priests under universal church law.

The provisions in the new policy include requiring dioceses to remove guilty priests from church work, and, in some instances, from the priesthood itself.

The plan also removes a statute of limitations for abuse claims, saying a guilty priest will be relieved of his ministry for “even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor past, present or future.”

Church lawyers have questioned whether the plan conflicts with canon law, and whether the diocesan lay review boards mandated in the plan have too much authority.