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Vatican: Bishops' sex abuse policy needs more work

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- The Vatican will not approve an agreement reached by U.S. bishops on how to deal with priests accused of pedophilia because of conflicts with canon law, sources said Thursday.

But Vatican officials will work with bishops to come up with a resolution that satisfies calls for changes in church policy on the issue and remains true to church law, sources said.

The sources said Pope John Paul II spelled out his objections to the American agreement in a two-page letter given to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a Thursday meeting between the two men.

In June, the U.S. bishops adopted a resolution that fell short of the "zero tolerance" policy some wanted but made it much easier to defrock a priest for molesting a child.

Under the guidelines, approved by 239-13, Gregory, whose parish is in Belleville, Illinois, said any charge of sexual abuse first must be reported to law enforcement authorities, then to the diocese, which is to cooperate fully with police.

Although each diocese has some flexibility on how to handle the situation, the accused priest will be removed from the parish, stripped of his collar and barred from saying Mass publicly. If a priest admits the abuse or is found guilty of it, he likely will be asked to seek laicization and could be defrocked.

The Vatican objected to the resolution's lack of an appeal process, as required by canon law, its elimination of a statute of limitations and the provision requiring that accusations be turned over to police immediately.

Observers said they had expected the Vatican would not automatically approve the resolution but instead would send it back to the bishops for more clarification.

Sources who had seen the pope's letter to Gregory said the pontiff was sympathetic to the bishops' position but would not budge on strict adherence to canon law.

The bishop's action in June was prompted by an outcry from U.S. Catholics in the wake of a growing sexual abuse scandal involving priests.

In the United States, reports of priests who have molested children have mounted, and the church has paid out millions of dollars to settle many of the cases.

In April, the pope summoned U.S. cardinals to Rome for a meeting at the Vatican to discuss the problem.

One theologian in the United States described the highly unusual papal call as a visit to the "woodshed" for the U.S. cardinals.

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