Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Experts in church law study how new sex-abuse rules fit

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Church lawyers met for the first time Tuesday to discuss how new sexual abuse policies adopted by Catholic bishops may conflict with long-standing church laws.

The meeting in Cincinnati was part of a four-day convention of the Canon Law Society, which represents lawyers trained in the laws of the church.

Canon lawyers are concerned about the new policies because it will be their job to advise bishops and other administrators on how to handle cases of sexual abuse.

“We want to make sure everyone is on the same page,” said Father Kevin McKenna, president of the Canon Law Society. “We want to make sure everyone's rights are observed.”

The bishops adopted new standards for dealing with abusive priests during a meeting in Dallas in June. But members of the society said Tuesday that at least some of those standards create possible conflicts with church law.

At their meeting, canon lawyers questioned how the new “zero tolerance” abuse policy would provide accused priests with the due process they are entitled to under church law.

They also questioned how church rules governing confidentiality might be challenged by the new abuse policies.

In some dioceses, for example, bishops have posted the names of priests accused of abuse on a Web site. In others, bishops have said such a step would violate the rights of priests and the law of the church.

There is some confusion about how to proceed because the rules adopted in Dallas say that the changes must comply with church law.

So while some of the new rules seem clear — such as the one that requires the removal of priests guilty of sexual misconduct — there still is room for legal interpretation.

“What is the value of putting names on a Web site? How does it weigh against the right to privacy?” said Father Lawrence O'Keefe, vice president of the society. “I don't know the answers, but these are questions a society like ours should be addressing.”

Before it leaves Cincinnati, the group is expected to form a task force or committee to study the impact of the new rules.

The lawyers also are waiting to see whether Pope John Paul II will approve the new rules, change them or reject them. Their recommendations will mean little until the Vatican takes action.



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