The policy, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved in June, calls for a priest’s removal from his ministry if church officials receive a “credible” accusation that he had sexually abused a minor.
Vatican officials said some of those provisions are difficult to interpret and left open procedural questions that needed to be resolved. While the letter gave no specifics on the provisions, Vatican officials have said in the past that the policy guidelines might violate church law because it would deprive accused priests of due process.
“For these reasons it has been judged appropriate that before the ‘recognitio’ [Vatican approval] can be granted, a further reflection on and revision of the `Norms’ and the ‘Charter’ are necessary,” the Vatican response said.
The response, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, proposed creating a joint U.S.-Vatican commission to amend the policy.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, accepted the proposal for a joint panel to discuss revisions, but cautioned against having to rewrite the entire policy.
“What we would like to see is that the charter and those norms be strengthened, clarified, brought into whatever sense of conformity they need with the church,” Gregory told reporters in Rome. “I don’t think this is a moment when we have to recreate the wheel.”
Gregory said he hoped the commission would complete its work in a month.
The U.S. bishops adopted the plan during a meeting in Dallas in response to enormous pressure that they take a tough stance and immediate action against abusive clergy following a string of church abuse cases coming to trial in recent months. The scandal has lead to the resignation or dismissal more than 250 priests and has prompted some 300 lawsuits from victims since January, when reports surfaced of a Boston priest who was reassigned even though molestation allegations against him had been passed to church authorities.
Many American dioceses have already begun implementing the policy and Gregory said that the Vatican response did not compel those dioceses to stop.
The Rev. Robert Bullock, an organizer of the Boston Priests Forum, an advocacy group for priests, hailed the Vatican response. Bullock said the U.S. policy, “did all the things necessary for victims. But the question is what does it do for due process for priests?”
However, Mark Serrano, a board member of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests called the Vatican response “a victory for Vatican bureaucrats and recalcitrant bishops.”