By Elaine Porterfield
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Leaders of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church unveiled proposed changes on Wednesday to their policy governing cases of sex abuse, dismissing criticism they are only tweaking at the margins.
The U.S. church has taken strong steps to address sex abuse by priests and will vote on Thursday to enact revisions to its 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, said Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on the subject.
"I would point out there are nearly 200 dioceses in the United States and we are seeing that the charter is working," Cupich told reporters at a bishops' meeting in Seattle.
"If we look at the cases ... it was when the charter was not followed correctly we got into difficulty. It goes back to the importance of staying with the charter," he said.
The bishops' charter, revised once before in 2005, was created when cases of priest abuse emerged in Boston and then across the United States and the world. The U.S. church has paid some $2 billion in settlements, bankrupting a handful of dioceses.
The church has also been stung by recent sex abuse and child pornography accusations against clergy in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Missouri, and elsewhere.
Most of the proposed revisions bring the U.S. charter into line with the Vatican's dictates on the definition of minors subjected to abuse and the requirement to report abuse accusations against bishops.
Included in the draft is Pope Benedict's pronouncement to U.S. bishops in 2008 to "bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged."
Victims' groups such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have criticized the charter as inadequate and a recent study commissioned by the U.S. bishops as a whitewash of what they believe is an ongoing crisis in the church.
The groups want the church to spell out punishments for bishops and others in the church hierarchy who have covered up for offending clergy. They also want strict reporting of accusations, not just those that are "proven."
"One change (to the charter) is including child pornography as a case of child abuse," Cupich said.
"We deal directly and transparently when allegations are made," Cupich said. "Immediately, of course, it's reported to the police. If in fact it is admitted or proven credible, that priest is removed from the ministry."
"Our priests have background checks. ... There are a number of measures like that which are very strict. We are going to continue to tighten it up. We have a commitment to protect children," he said.
END ASSISTED SUICIDE
The bishops also prepared to issue a statement on Thursday opposing assisted suicide -- in which doctors can prescribe a fatal dose of medication that the patient can take. The practice is legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the bishops needed to make a strong statement on "why we consider it dangerous and why we consider it an assault on the human person."
"Compassion is most stated when we come to the aid of a person ... by giving them help, not by ending their lives," he said.
Addressing the bishops' move, supporters of assisted suicide said the Catholic Church should not dictate laws.
"The choice of how to address suffering and terminal illness must be the province of dying individuals themselves in consultation with their doctors, their loved ones, their clergy, and their conscience," said Barbara Lee, president of the group Compassion & Choices.
DiNardo said gravely ill patients needed support, not help from doctors to kill themselves.
"Medicine is not around to end people's lives. Medicine is tainted by physician-assisted suicide," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Stern and Peter Cooney)