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Vatican Opposes U.S. Church’s Zero Tolerance Sex Abuse Rule

By Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman

The Vatican opposes many of the “zero tolerance” rules that U.S. bishops fashioned in an effort to quickly remove priests who are accused of sexually abusing minors, Vatican officials said Thursday. The rules need revision to achieve “harmonization” with church law and practices, one official said.

While the Holy See strongly supports firm action against sexual misconduct, officials said, it is concerned that the bishops’ policy might allow priests to fall prey to false accusations and that internal “canon law” about due process was being summarily thrown out.

The Vatican decision was contained in a two-page letter handed by Pope John Paul II Thursday to three top Roman Catholic leaders in the United States: Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Skylstad, the conference’s vice president, and Monsignor William Fay, secretary general.

In legal terms, the church hierarchy withheld “recognitio,” a Vatican seal of approval. Instead, the Vatican is suggesting a joint commission to bring the rules into line with church law, according to another church official.

The Vatican is not rejecting the entire American effort, officials said, and is taking pains to show sympathy for the difficulties of the bishops and the plight of victims, parishioners and priests.

Full details of the decision were not released. Gregory is scheduled to hold a news conference in Rome on Friday.

Reports of Vatican concerns had been circulating for weeks. But at the same time, some people at the Holy See predicted that the U.S. bishops would be allowed to continue to carry out their policies on an experimental basis. It is unclear now whether such experimentation can proceed, and which of the new regulations will remain in force.

Since January, a pedophilia scandal has rocked the U.S. church, the wealthiest in the Catholic world. Enraged victims and parishioners called for action and criticized some bishops for transferring abusers from parish to parish and making secret out-of-court settlements with victims.

In June, American bishops adopted a zero tolerance policy during a meeting in Dallas and said they were putting it into effect immediately, pending Vatican review. Intended to speed up and tighten existing rules, the policy requires the permanent removal from active ministry -- though not necessarily from the priesthood -- of any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor. In addition, bishops must report allegations of abuse to the police and are barred from making secret settlements.

The participants in the Dallas meeting had hoped for rapid Vatican approval.