By Elaine Porterfield
SEATTLE (Reuters) - U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday approved slight revisions to their policy governing child sex abuse, saying the church would not tolerate offending priests. But critics said children were still vulnerable.
After minimal debate, the bishops passed revisions to its decade-old Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which for the first time listed child pornography as equivalent to sexual abuse and cited the need to protect mentally disabled people from abuse.
The bishops voted 187 in favor of the revised charter, with five opposed and four bishops abstaining. A two-thirds vote was needed for approval.
"We are not going to put the priest offenders first," Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, told reporters after the vote.
"We learned the hard way the advice we got from psychology that people could be rehabilitated was bad advice ... they re-offended. You cannot take that risk," said Cupich, who headed the bishops' committee on the topic.
The bishops also approved their first formal statement opposing assisted-suicide laws in three U.S. states, with other states considering similar legislation.
CRITICS SAY ABUSE POLICY INADEQUATE
Victims' groups have argued the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis has been inadequate, since some offending priests have been reassigned to unsuspecting parishes, or received "treatment" and put back into ministry.
"The bishops had a choice between being complacent or being vigilant. They chose to be complacent," said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"We fear that the charter, as it stands, with no consequences for failure to observe it or to in any way protect children, is dangerous," she said. "The kids are no safer than they were yesterday."
Critics of the church's response say U.S. church officials are given a free hand to discipline offending clergy, yet some ignored reporting requirements and covered up crimes.
The charter, which was previously revised in 2005, was created under pressure after a rash of clergy abuse cases were uncovered in the Boston diocese. Abuse discoveries subsequently spread across the United States and then around the world.
Additions to the sex abuse charter approved on Thursday align American church policy with Vatican dictates and statements by Pope Benedict urging healing and no tolerance for offenders.
Last month, the Vatican told bishops around the world they must make it a priority to root out sexual abuse of children by priests. The letter said bishops should cooperate with civil authorities in abuse cases, with each diocese told to draw up tough guidelines by the end of 2011 in line with local criminal law for Vatican review.
In 2010 the Church issued sweeping revisions to double a statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extended the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them.
"Our challenge as an institution is to provide training for a new generation of leaders," Cupich said. "Their first concern will be healing the victims."
The bishops approved a separate statement, "To Live Each Day With Dignity," that lays out the U.S. church's case against physician-assisted suicide.
"There is tremendous need for the church to speak clearly" on the subject, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said after the nearly unanimous approval by the bishops, with only one bishop opposed.
The bishops' statement said physician-assisted suicide laws provided excuses for denying medical care, and would be applied as a substitute for palliative care. It said depressed patients are prone to accepting the choice of suicide.
Polls show Americans are closely divided on their view of the morality of assisted suicide laws, which were enacted in 1997 in Oregon and more recently in Washington state and Montana. Some 600 patients, most of them in Oregon, have opted to take fatal doses of medication prescribed for them by doctors.
(Writing by Andrew Stern. Editing by Peter Bohan)