The policy, which now faces final approval from the Vatican, passed by a 246 to 7 vote, with six abstentions.
If the plan receives the Vatican’s endorsement, it will allow bishops to conduct a confidential investigation into sex abuse claims. If a claim is proved valid, the offending priest will be put on leave and appear before a clerical tribunal.
The policy also spells out more clearly the church’s statute of limitations requiring victims come forward by age 28 — although bishops can request a waiver from the Vatican in special cases.
Review boards including lay Catholics will continue to monitor abuse claims, but the policy maintains that it is the bishops who have the authority to manage clergy.
Victims groups have criticized the plan, saying it provides too many safeguards for priests and does not do enough to help alleged victims.
“The gulf between bishops and the victims and lay people in the church has grown wider by the vote today,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Today there’s a broader burden on the victims.”
The Vatican rejected the bishops’ original policy in October, expressing concern that it might violate church law because it would deprive accused priests of due process.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested the policy should be revised rather than rewritten entirely and a Vatican-U.S. commission was created to make the adjustments.