Arrow-right Camera

U.S. bishops gathering in Bellevue for policy debates

SUNDAY, JUNE 12, 2011, 5:21 P.M.

Definition of marriage also on agenda

SEATTLE — The U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are meeting in Bellevue this week to vote on a document opposing physician-assisted suicide and on changes to policies adopted in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring meeting takes place Wednesday through Friday at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue. New leaders of Washington state’s three dioceses in Seattle, Yakima and Spokane will gather with about 300 of their fellow bishops.

The bishops’ agenda also includes a briefing on their efforts to keep marriage between one man and one woman.

Though the topics may be significant, the actions the bishops take aren’t likely to create sweeping changes, and that upsets some, at least on the issue of clergy sex abuse, the Seattle Times reported.

The bishops will vote on the charter for the protection of children and young people, which the bishops adopted in 2002 in response to the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. It was revised previously in 2005.

The charter is a “weak, vague and largely unenforceable set of guidelines,” David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Seattle Times. “We have yet to see a single Catholic employee, from custodian to cardinal, disciplined for breaking any part of the charter.”

The charter requires, among other things, that dioceses conduct background checks of employees and establish codes of conduct for those working with minors. It also says that any priest with a single credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor cannot remain in the ministry.

Bishop Blase Cupich, who was installed as bishop of the Spokane Diocese in September, told the Seattle Times that the charter is working and that’s why proposed revisions this time are minor and part of a periodic scheduled review. Cupich heads the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

The church says the proposed changes would bring the policy in line with recently issued Vatican instructions, including specifically mentioning child pornography as a crime against church law and holding that abuse of someone who habitually lacks reason, such as someone with mental retardation, is equivalent to child abuse.

Recent developments in Philadelphia and Kansas City have raised questions about whether the bishops’ policy is working well enough, or even if it’s enforceable, the Seattle Times reported.

A grand jury in Philadelphia earlier this year said it found 37 priests accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior who had been allowed to remain in active ministry. The archbishop of Philadelphia later suspended two dozen of them. In Kansas City, the bishop acknowledged not paying enough attention to past warnings about a priest who was charged last month with possessing child pornography.

In both of those cities, the dioceses’ own independent review boards — experts who help the bishops evaluate abuse allegations — have said the bishops did not give them important information.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, from the 1980s to now, more than 300 people have come forward saying they were abused, with all the abuses occurring before 1985, Greg Magnoni, archdiocese spokesman told the Seattle Times. The archdiocese has paid about $48 million total over the years in settlements, counseling and attorneys’ fees, with much of that coming from insurance companies.

Also on the agenda is a vote on a document that says physician-assisted suicide does not advance compassion or choices. Some Catholic groups opposed the initiative.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said in a statement this month that the church must respond to renewed efforts in the assisted suicide movement since Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1994.

Washington citizens in 2008 passed an initiative allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their death. A Supreme Court ruling in Montana in 2009 determined that the state doesn’t have prohibitions on physician-assisted suicide.

In 2010, 65 Oregonians took their lives under the law and at least 51 Washingtonians did the same after requesting and taking a lethal prescription, according to state health records.

In addition to Cupich, Washington state’s new Catholic prelates include the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain, installed in December as Seattle archbishop, and the Most Rev. Joseph Tyson, installed in May as Yakima bishop.

Click here to comment on this story »