BELLEVUE, Wash. (RNS) The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to maintain current church policies on the sexual abuse of children, making only minor tweaks to guidelines that critics say contain large loopholes.
The bishops voted 187-5, with four abstentions, to make only slight revisions to their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of guidelines adopted in 2002 as the clergy sex abuse scandal spread nationwide.

The bishops are expected to continue discussing their sexual abuse policies in private sessions through Friday, when the assembly ends. For the most part, though, they argue the current rules are effective, pointing to a sharp decline in new incidents of abuse since 2002.

But victims’ advocates say recent reports of ethical lapses by church leaders in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., prove that the nonbinding church policies are weak and unenforceable.

“Despite revelations in numerous dioceses showing that abuse has been continuing under the bishops’ current abuse policy and that the policy needs to be overhauled, the bishops … chose to rubber-stamp a nearly identical policy for the future,” said the watchdog website in a statement.

“This is a squandered opportunity and a disaster for children.”

Most of the revisions approved here bring the U.S. bishops’ policies in line with Vatican norms issued in 2010, which equate child abuse with abusing the mentally disabled, and make the acquisition, possession, or distribution of child pornography a church crime.

The bishops also adopted two revisions proposed by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. One requires bishops to follow civil laws about reporting sexual abuse accusations against fellow bishops to civil authorities, just as they are expected to do for priests.

O’Malley’s other amendment accords the bishops’ guidelines with federal statutes that outlaw pornographic images of children under the age of 18. A previous bishops’ proposal had included only children under age 14.

“Without this change, we will likely experience much criticism and diminished confidence by way of providing exceptions for some circumstances of offenses with minors,” O’Malley wrote in proposing the revision.

The bishops rejected an impassioned plea from Archbishop Francis Hurley, the former head of the diocese of Anchorage, Alaska, to drop their “zero tolerance” policy, which permanently bars credibly accused priests from ministry.

“In the mind of most people, and in my own mind, when we say reconciliation and forgiveness, we mean the embrace of that person back into the community and the fold. We are not doing that with the priests and the priests feel that very much,” Hurley said.

As a retired bishop, Hurley does not have a vote at the bishops’ semiannual sessions, but his comments will “probably color our subsequent debate,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. No bishop, however, took up Hurley’s amendment.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., who chairs the church committee dedicated to protecting minors from sexual abuse, said the “zero tolerance” policy is essential to preventing child abuse, restoring trust in church leaders and demonstrating compassion for victims.

“I would find it very difficult as a diocesan bishop to go to a community and say, `I’m going to assign as your pastor or associate pastor, a priest who has abused a minor.’ I can tell you that my judgment would be questioned and that priest would not be accepted,” Cupich said.

Cupich said the bishops may again revise their guidelines in the next few years, after a church-appointed review board considers recommendations from a recent sweeping study on the “causes and context” of the scandal.

Cupich also said he is confident the Vatican will adopt mechanisms to ensure that bishops actually follow their own guidelines. The lack of penalties for bishops who break the rules creates a large loophole in current policy, according to victim advocates.

A scathing grand jury report released in February excoriated church leaders in Philadelphia for failing to remove 37 priests accused of improper acts with minors, withholding information from a lay review board and failing to implement “safe environment” programs in schools—all breaches of church rules.

Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn recently apologized for failing to remove a priest from ministry despite warnings from church officials. The priest was arrested in May on child pornography charges.

In other business, the bishops voted 191-1 to approve their first joint statement on physician-assisted suicide. “In short, the assisted suicide agenda promotes a narrow and distorted notion of freedom,” the statement says, “by creating an expectation that certain people, unlike others, will be served by being helped to choose death.”

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