The nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday renewed their plan to prevent clergy sex abuse, making only minor revisions despite lapses in some dioceses that created pressure for more dramatic change.
After the vote, victim advocates said they were determined to bring any future concerns about the removal of guilty priests directly to law enforcement. In February, a grand jury accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of keeping about three dozen credibly accused clergy in ministry.
"Transparency in this process is crucial," said Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, which has created a public database of all records related to the abuse crisis. "Without the grand jury report in Philadelphia, we wouldn't have known what was going on there."
Church leaders initially adopted the policy, called the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," in 2002, after the abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston then spread nationwide and beyond. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 187-5 to approve the policy for two more years with a few updates. Separately, they approved a statement explaining Catholic teaching against physician-assisted suicide, before ending the public sessions of their assembly. Four bishops abstained from voting on the charter.
Child pornography was added to the definition of sex abuse in the revised document. Church leaders were also instructed to report any abuse claims against fellow bishops to police and the pope's U.S. ambassador. However, the centerpiece of the reforms was unchanged: Bishops affirmed their pledge to permanently bar credibly accused clergy from any church work.
"If we're going to be honest with the victims and say we put them first, then we're not going to put priest-offenders first and that means we are going to take them out of ministry," said Bishop Blase Cupich, of Spokane, who serves as chairman of the bishops' child protection committee.
The national policy came under new scrutiny in February, after the grand jury released its claims against the Archdioceses of Philadelphia. A high-ranking archdiocesan official who oversaw priests was also charged with child endangerment over allegations he transferred accused clergy among parishes. He is the first senior church official charged with such a crime in the decades-long abuse scandal.
Then last month, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph acknowledged that he kept in ministry a priest who took pornographic pictures of girls in his parish. Finn also said that he did not read a letter that a Catholic school principal wrote a year before the priest was arrested warning about the cleric's behavior.
In both cases, questions were raised about whether bishops took the cases to their local review boards, which church leaders created in each diocese to help them evaluate abuse claims. Following the grand jury report, Ana Maria Catanzaro, the head of the local Philadelphia review board, said her archdiocese had kept some cases from the board and had "failed miserably at being open and transparent." Observers, both inside and outside the church, wondered whether similar violations were occurring in other dioceses.
There is no enforcement mechanism for the policy since bishops answer only to the pope. No U.S. bishop has ever been disciplined for failing to stop an abuser and church leaders rarely publicly criticize their fellow prelates over the abuse scandal or other issues. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, former chairwoman of the bishops' National Review Board, an advisory panel on preventing abuse, said church leaders need to create penalties for noncompliance. She suggested that bishops pay a fine for any violation and the money should be donated to a victims' assistance group.
"If the bishops have agreed and have voted for this charter, there has to be some consequences or what's the point?" Burke said in a phone interview. "What good is even having a charter at all if someone can get away with noncompliance without any sort of consequence? It's not worth the paper it's written on."
Teresa Kettelkamp, who this month will step down as head of the bishops' child protection office, saw the biggest challenge ahead as fighting complacency nine years after the scandal erupted. Over that time, 125 new bishops have been appointed, while dioceses have seen significant turnover of managers and workers, Cupich said.
Kettelkamp said the lesson for dioceses from the recent troubles in Philadelphia and elsewhere, was "be open and be transparent."
"If mistakes were made, talk about them," she said. "It's better than death by a thousand cuts."