DALLAS (AP) _ Less than six months after the sex scandal swept across the Roman Catholic Church, American bishops have come up with a policy that allows sexually abusive clergy to stay in the priesthood but keeps them away from parishioners.
With criticism already beginning, Bishop Wilton Gregory reminded his colleagues in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: ``As the victim-survivors told us, `Listening is easy. Talk is cheap. Action is priceless.'
``That is our challenge,'' Gregory said after the plan was overwhelmingly approved Friday. ``Ultimately, that is how we will be judged.''
Critics said the policy was inadequate and fell far short of the zero tolerance many of them had hoped for.
``This is akin to telling a street killer in the city `We're sending you to the country,''' said Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. ``They will find children to prey upon.''
Mike Emerton of Voice of the Faithful, a Massachusetts-based Catholic lay group that claims 14,000 members nationwide, objected to keeping abusive priests on the payroll.
``True zero tolerance doesn't allow a priest to remain on the payroll and to continue to be paid for from the Sunday collection,'' he said.
Approval of the policy marked the climactic moment of an extraordinary meeting filled with wrenching accounts of abuse from victims and solemn expressions of remorse from church leaders.
The plan represents a major shift from the voluntary discipline guidelines the conference has relied on for years, though it still needs Vatican approval to become binding.
The prelates stood and applauded after they approved the policy on a 239-13 vote by secret ballot _ a significant step toward ending a sex scandal that has shaken the church to its core and forced a summit with the pope.
``From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States,'' said Gregory, the conference president. He also apologized for ``our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror'' of sexual abuse.
Under the plan, abusers past and future will technically remain priests, but they will be prohibited from any work connected to the church _ from teaching in parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen.
``He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb or to present himself publicly as a priest,'' says the policy, which covers 3,500 words in 17 separate articles.
Abusers still can be defrocked _ removed from the priesthood _ but it would be up to the presiding bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people.
The policy says if some abusers are not removed from the priesthood because of ``advanced age or infirmity,'' they are to lead ``a life of prayer and penance.''
The church would continue to financially support priests removed from ministry. Bishop Joseph Galante said he believed the priest could be sent to a ``house of confinement,'' the church's version of a halfway house for clergy who require strict monitoring.
The swift change in church policy comes after months of unrelenting scandal in which at least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct claims. Victim after victim has come forward with tortured stories of abuse at the hands of priests, and accusations that church leaders merely shuffled molesters between parishes.
Before the summit, there was widespread speculation that the bishops would adopt a zero tolerance policy under which abusive priests would be automatically defrocked. That idea was dropped during closed-door debate.
Bishops said it seemed unfair to remove elderly men from the priesthood toward the end of their lives for allegations that in some cases date back decades.
``The majority of men these men are in their 60s, 70s and 80s,'' Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the policy reflected the need to show ``Christ-like compassion'' to priests.
``We call them our son,'' he said. ``Therefore, we must continue to have that compassion and forgiveness like any parent.''
The Vatican will be asked to approve parts of the policy to make it law in the U.S. church, which includes nearly 64 million Catholics. Since each diocese answers to Rome, authorization from the Vatican is needed to make the policy more than just a gentlemen's agreement.
The Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, had no comment on the policy but said officials would review it _ likely a lengthy process. There have been signs that leaders in Rome were displeased with the reforms Americans were discussing, including zero tolerance measures.
The bishops began working on the policy after an April summit on the scandal between Pope John Paul II and U.S. cardinals. The first draft was released only 11 days ago, and was revised in private discussions over the past week that culminated in a late-night session Thursday.
The speed with which the document was written and approved was stunning for a church that usually debates issues for years.
Under the policy, bishops must report all claims of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities. The plan also calls for background checks for church employees who work with minors and diocesan review boards composed primarily of lay people to look at complaints and assess the diocese's response.
The bishops even took time to define sexual abuse _ as any inappropriate contact with a child, regardless of whether it involves force, physical contact or whether any harm is apparent.
The church has been under intense scrutiny since January, when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston acknowledged that he allowed a pedophile priest, John Geoghan, to continue to serve in parishes. Geoghan, now defrocked, was convicted this year of fondling a boy. More than 130 people say Geoghan molested them.
Victims around the country have filed at least 300 civil lawsuits against church officials, and district attorneys have weighed criminal charges. Four bishops have resigned, two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse and another priest was shot by an alleged victim.