New Delhi, India - The Roman Catholic church in India has recommended a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse complaints against priests, a spokesman said Friday.
A plenary meeting this week of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the apex body of the Catholic Church in the country, framed a code which includes reporting incidents of sexual abuse to the police, and defrocking and expelling priests found guilty of abuse, the conference's spokesman Babu Joseph Karakombil, said.
"The Catholic Church will take extreme measures and will not hesitate to act on allegations of sexual abuse made against any priest," Karakombil told the Associated Press. "We will have zero tolerance with regard to abuse of children in institutions run by the Church."
The new guidelines will be in place by June after discussions in dioceses across India.
While it reports to the Vatican, and will send the guidelines there for approval, the bishops' body has jurisdiction over the rules they frame for the Church in India. This predominantly Hindu country has an estimated 24 million Christians, of whom 17.3 million are Catholics.
The three-day meeting, attended by more than 40 bishops, ended in the southern Indian city of Bangalore on Tuesday. They also discussed related issues such as rehabilitation, counseling and help to be given to victims of sexual abuse.
The meeting came amid an international storm over sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, including revelations about a priest from India, the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, who was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage parishioner in Minnesota.
Critics of the Catholic Church highlighted Jeyapaul's case as an example of what they said is a practice of protecting child-molesting priests from the law.
Jeyapaul was assigned to a diocese office in southern India where he handles school paperwork. He has said he would willingly leave India and try to clear his name if the United States tried to extradite him.
In a separate case, a church official confirmed earlier this month that another priest convicted of fondling a 12-year-old altar girl in New York more than a decade ago had returned home to India where he still served as a priest.
Karakombil said that under the proposed guidelines, Church authorities would report all suspected cases of sexual abuse to police and the accused would face charges in court. But that apart, the Church would also take action against the accused.
He said any clergy member accused of sexual abuse would be suspended from all priestly duties, and in extreme cases, the Church would consider defrocking the priest.
"However, this would be in extreme cases, after going through a process of law," he said.
"The guidelines take into account the best interests of children in all Church-run institutions to protect them from not just clergy, but all those working in these institutions," he said.