updated 6/17/2005 6:05:57 PM ET 2005-06-17T22:05:57

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops agreed Friday to a five-year extension on their unprecedented policy of permanently barring sexually abusive clergy from church work.

The overwhelming vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops means the American church will stick with the main points of the policy it adopted in 2002 at the height of crisis brought on by molesters in the priesthood. The Vatican is expected to approve the extension.

The bishops' committee overseeing a review mandated by the original policy spent months soliciting comment from fellow church leaders. The panel concluded that "many, perhaps a majority," of bishops hope to someday ease the permanent ban on offenders. Some prelates believe it violates Catholic teaching on redemption — that any sinner can be healed — and treats every case equally no matter the severity of the offense.

However, the bishops' committee said that church leaders agreed now was not the time to soften the policy.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, a leader in reviewing the plan with Vatican officials, said he was aware it created tensions between bishops and priests. He went as far as calling the permanent ban on offenders "draconian."

Yet, he said the penalty was necessary to restore trust in church leadership.

"Our real convictions come from the failure of oversight of priests by bishops in the past, and the concern of parents and the protection of their children," George said.

Victims skeptical
Victims' groups say the prelates cannot be trusted to enforce their own plan and called it inadequate. But George said anyone who considers the policy weak, "should talk to the priests who have been affected by this."

The scandal was sparked by revelations that many bishops had moved guilty priests among parish assignments without warning parents or police. Hundreds of accused clergy have been removed from ministry in the last three years alone.

The policy, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, not only dictates how bishops should investigate abuse claims, but also outlines what steps dioceses should take to help victims and protect children. A companion document makes the discipline plan for guilty priests church law for the United States.

The bishops took up the two documents separately. The charter was approved 228-4; the second measure, called the norms, passed 229-3.

While the ban on offenders remains intact, bishops did approve changes to other parts of the charter: Church leaders and their critics disagree on the significance of the revisions.

The modifications drawing the loudest protests concern the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel the bishops created that reformers consider critical to monitoring the church.

Some former board members angered Catholic leaders by openly challenging bishops. Now, the revised policy emphasizes that the panel remains under the bishops' authority and could someday include clergy.

Church leaders say the language is meant only to clarify the relationship between the board and bishops. But Illinois Justice Anne Burke, a former chairwoman of the board, contended the prelates were trying to undermine the panel.

"What they're really saying here is they don't like the way the board functioned, and they didn't like the independence of people on the board," she said.

The semantics of ‘sex abuse’
In other revisions, the definition of sex abuse was changed to link it directly to the Sixth Commandment against adultery, which is interpreted as condemning any sexual activity outside marriage.

Bishops also are no longer required to seek a waiver of the church's statute of limitations from Vatican officials in cases of old abuse claims.

Bishops additionally agreed to dip into an endowment fund to help pay for a multimillion-dollar study on the psychological issues behind abuse by clergy. Church leaders previously commissioned studies of abuse cases that found more than 11,500 molestation claims since 1950.

Abuse cases have cost the church more $1 billion (euro820 million) since then and three U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy.

Bishops repeatedly defended themselves against criticism that their reforms have not gone far enough. But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said much more could be done, such as releasing the names of all accused priests to encourage victims to come forward. He contended that some abusers remained in ministry.

"How can anybody believe that, after decades of sex crimes and cover-ups, that in less than three years, somehow decades of horrific crimes and secretive patterns are totally fixed," he said. "That's terribly naive."

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