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Catholic bishops tighten Charter for the Protection of Children

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2011 - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Seattle today approved a slight tightening of its 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly called the Dallas Charter.

The nearly 200 voting bishops approved changes so the charter now specifically names child pornography as a crime against church law. The tweaking of the charter also outlaws the abuse of someone who habitually lacks reason, a person with mental retardation, for example. The charter now equates that with child abuse.

The bishops' vote was 187 approving the changes, 5 opposed with 4 abstaining. Passage required a vote of two-thirds of the members.

This charter is a national framework advising bishops, priests, their diocesan child protection officers, lay oversight boards, teachers and all volunteers and the National Lay oversight board on how to deal with abusive priests. It was written and approved June 2002 in Dallas by the conference under the leadership of its then president Bishop Wilton Gregory, then of Belleville, now the Atlanta archbishop.

The charter was written and approved in response to the tragic scandal of U.S. priests who criminally abused minors, mostly adolescent boys, but in some cases girls and younger children of both sexes. This is the second time the charter has been revised. The bishops also tightened its language in 2005.

Many bishops have expressed anger that the Philadelphia archdiocese and others concealed - apparently lied - to the Bishop Conference's hired secular auditors who annually review each diocese's handling of accusations against any church employees including priests and bishops. They also audit each diocese's removal of criminally abusive priests. It's all part of keeping the church safe for children.

Some public discussion about the charter before the meeting, especially in Philadelphia and in the press, called for the charter to be rewritten. But Conference insiders never expected to upend the charter at this meeting -- only to update it to come into line with the Vatican's newer recommendations about pornography and abuse of adults lacking full reason.

Behind closed doors in Seattle, bishops are believed to have talked about how they can better police riminal violations. Since bishops have no authority beyond peer pressure and moral authority ways to handle breaking the existing laws and charter need to be worked out, many said. Some bishops said that a bishop, or archbishop, who has neglected his duty in this fashion should be removed swiftly by the Vatican. Only the Vatican can do that.

The charter's changes approved Thursday were written by U.S. bishops and others who are canon (church) lawyers, so that the charter will comply with recent Vatican directions to the whole church, not just to the church in the United States. The bishops have had copies of the proposed changes for about a month.

At first, the so-called Dallas Charter had little legal muscle under church law, just the understanding among brother U.S. bishops that they would stand behind their Dallas vote and try to regain the trust of Catholics and the general population. Many bishops said such a promise among themselves was not enough.

St. Louis Connections

This is the first USCCB meeting ever led by a St Louis native. Last November in an upset, the bishops elected New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan as its president.

He was born in St Louis and served as a St. Louis archdiocesan priest and then auxiliary bishop until nine years ago this month when Pope John Paul II sent him to lead the Milwaukee diocese before Benedict moved him to New York City. Dolan's election as conference president broke the conference's near half-century tradition of its vice president becoming president after three years at the president's side.

Two residents of the St. Louis region, both Chicago natives, have led the conference St. Louis Archbishop John L. May from 1983 to '86 and Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory from 2001 to '04. Gregory was perhaps the most nationally visible of all conference chairs since he served during the crucible years at which the sex abuse first was revealed.

Many bishops have said they believe Gregory will be named the next archbishop of Philadelphia. Eventually, whoever is named to Philadelphia will be named a cardinal. No Vatican prediction is ever a sure thing. A Vatican announcement about Philadelphia might come as early as Tuesday.

Under church law no U.S. bishop has authority outside his region - called a province. Each diocesan bishop answers only to the pope. To give legal muscle to the charter, in November 2002, the U.S. bishops and the Vatican worked out changes to canon law called norms that were specific to the U.S. Under church law, bishops had to follow the charter ideas that were spelled in parallel language in the new church laws.

When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and headed the Vatican Congregation for the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI dealt directly with U.S. bishops about abusive priests each Friday in 2002 and 2003. He once called them his "penitential Fridays." He strongly supported Gregory's efforts to clean up the mess in the U.S. church with a charter. He supported the norms to turn charter ideas into church law.

Once he became pope, Benedict met with survivors of priests' sex abuse in many countries including the United States. He wept and asked forgiveness when he met a group of Boston survivors in Washington. At that time, many Europeans Catholics and the public at large called abusive priests a U.S. problem emanating from the sexually-saturated U.S. culture. In recent years, new revelations proved the tragic harming of minors to be as prevalent in many European dioceses.

Today the U.S. Conference was catching up with newer Vatican directives about sex abuse and pornography instead of leading the way.

Yesterday and today in Seattle there was, as expected, scant discussion from floor of the bishops' meeting about charter changes. Most work is done ahead in committees. The chief voice from the floor came in extended remarks of the 84-year-old former Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley. He went well over his time limit to say that many Catholic and priests are angry at the bishops for the one-strike and you are out (of ministry) policy. He asked for forgiveness of the abusive priests and said it was especially sad that the abusive priests could not say Mass even for their family at special family events.

The USCCB president New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a St. Louis native, did not call time on Hurley. When the elderly man finished, Dolan explained to Hurley that he lacked ability to make amendments or vote.

Bishop Blaise Cupich of Spokane, Wash., who presented the charter changes to the body as chairman of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, succinctly told Hurley that the charter had "zero tolerance" for priests remaining in ministry who have creditable accusation of abusing minors.

Forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly called confession, "does not change the penalty of a crime," Cupich said. The vote was then taken.

Shortly after they passed the charter changes, the bishops went into executive session, which is closed not only to the press but to bishops' aides, the conference staff and heads of various U.S. Catholic groups. The remainder of the three-day Seattle meeting tomorrow is only an executive session.

Philadelphia archbishop Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, a former St. Louis archbishop, is notable by his absence at the Seattle meeting. This spring the Vatican ordered him to the Czech Republic for a minor event that conflicted with the Seattle meeting. Under church law, Rigali had to turn in his resignation a year ago this spring on his 75th birthday. His replacement is expected to come any day.

Many bishops have told this reporter that a Philadelphia grand jury's report this winter on lack of reporting allegations of abuse dashed many people's trust in the charter but they don't see the charter itself as weak.

As he did in St. Louis, Rigali apparently delegated oversight of criminal abuse of children and most charter issues to others and that, a grand jury charged, left criminally abusive priests in ministry. The grand jury accused Rigali, his two predecessors and his archdiocesan administration of allowing at least 37 priests to continue in ministry even though there were credible accusations of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior toward minors against each of the priests. Some of the abusive priests were accused only after Rigali became the Philadelphia archbishop. He holds the distinction of removing more priests in one day, 22, than in any diocese since the begging of the scandal, but only after the grand jury and after its report was reviewed by a former Pennsylvania prosecutor he hired.

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson took the podium Monday and won the bishops' approval for a committee to write a 50-page document on effective preaching the Sunday Mass homily. A homily is a reflection on the three Bible readings selected for the Mass of that day. Carlson chairs the conference's Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

The bishops approved his idea after several lined up to add ideas. Most wanted Carlson's committee to include ideas for preaching in Spanish, ideas from the great African-American preaching tradition, ideas for solid academic basis for preaching and others.

With a smile, Carlson said that the document would be "easy to read" and just 50 pages but that other bishops with ethnic interests or those like himself who have great heart for preaching to youth might come up with supplement material outside the 50-pages. The first draft, open to amendment by the bishops, will be ready in November 2012, Carlson said.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., congratulated Carlson for taking on this important work "of the New Evangelism" and said that, in most of the 32 years McCarrick has been a bishop, the conference members have talked about such a document but not produced one.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has long covered religion.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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