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Pope John Paul II approved changes in Vatican policy that will expedite dismissal of some clergy accused of sex abuse and give lay people a greater role at the church trials of alleged molesters, a Vatican official said Wednesday.
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees clerical abuse cases worldwide, now has the authority to oust particularly egregious offenders from the priesthood without a church trial, said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a prosecutor with the congregation. Previously, only the pope had that power.
For accused priests who maintain their innocence and have a church trial, lay people with expertise in the church's legal code will now be allowed to serve on the tribunals hearing cases in U.S. dioceses, Scicluna said.
The changes, approved by the pope Feb. 7, are meant to help American bishops deal swiftly with the worst offenders and give smaller dioceses more resources to combat abuse. U.S. church leaders are still trying to recover from a year of molestation scandals.
If the cleric confesses, or if evidence of criminal wrongdoing is overwhelming, the congregation in Rome now has the power to simply oust him, Scicluna said.
The accused will still have a chance to challenge his dismissal and his bishop also will have input in the decision, Scicluna said.
"The accused will always be heard," he said.
GRAND JURY TESTIMONY: New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes testified Wednesday before a grand jury investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against Boston Archdiocese officials for their handling of priests accused of sexual abuse. Hughes followed Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston's former archbishop, who answered questions Tuesday for the same grand jury.