U.S. Catholic bishops voted Thursday to approve minor changes to their child protection charter amid several new scandals over bishops who have failed to follow it, after a key advisory committee warned that without more clear, direct responses, they risked undoing their progress on the issue.
On Tuesday, the bishops' conference was urged to "speak publicly and provide clear, accurate and honest information," said the report from the National Advisory Council, a demographically representative advisory board of 45 Catholics from across the U.S.
The warning was delivered by Bishop William Skurla, the board's liaison to the bishops, at their summer meeting in Bellevue.
The council said that, "without such information and renewed zeal to stay the course, the reputation of the charter and the image of the church are at risk."
Victim advocates were far more critical.
"Dramatic reforms are needed to better protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded," the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said.
The charter was drafted in 2002 at the height of public outrage over bishops who had failed to remove priests who had sexually abused minors.
It says no priest who has sexually abused a minor may remain in ministry, that a review board of lay experts must advise each bishop on response to accusations, that bishops must provide compassionate support to victims and provide extensive training on the detection and prevention of child sexual abuse.
It mandates outside audits of each diocese's implementation of those policies and established a National Review Board, whose members are primarily lay experts, to oversee all of this.
To give the charter teeth, the bishops arranged for the Vatican to give its rules the force of canon law.
But, it contains no penalty for bishops who failed to remove abusers or to follow the charter.
Under canon law, only the pope can discipline a bishop.
"We don't have any ability or authority to sanction anyone," said Bishop Blase Cupich, chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.
In Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali is under heavy fire for mishandling accusations against dozens of priests, after a grand jury said 37 remained in ministry despite credible allegations.
A high-ranking archdiocesan official was indicted for inaction.
In Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn failed to act on complaints from a parish school that a priest was displaying disturbing, pedophile-like behavior.
The priest was later arrested for possession of child pornography.
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., has refused to allow the audits required by the charter, with no apparent reaction from the Vatican. Notably, the bishops' committee that oversees the charter rejected more than two dozen proposed amendments from Bishop Bruskewitz, who argued that the charter isn't binding on any bishop.
The committee replied that the charter's rules were approved by the Vatican, which recently required all dioceses worldwide to adopt similar measures.
But this review of the charter was scheduled more than a year ago only to make sure it was in line with new Vatican documents, Cupich said.
There were no major proposed revisions because the charter works well in most of the nation's nearly 200 dioceses, he said.
"It is where the charter isn't followed correctly ... that we get into difficulties," he said.
The victim advocacy group BishopAccountability.org had proposed specific changes to the charter, including requiring the diocesan review boards to consider all accusations, not just those that bishops choose to forward to them, and requiring bishops to send all allegations, no matter how flimsy, to the civil authorities.
The advocacy group also wanted bishops to at least temporarily remove a priest from ministry as soon as an allegation is made, rather than wait until a preliminary investigation is completed.
At least a few bishops believe the charter is already too harsh on priest perpetrators.
Retired Archbishop Francis Hurley, emeritus of Anchorage, Alaska, said, "I have received questions from a number of people (asking) 'don't we believe in forgiveness?'"