VATICAN CITY, DEC. 16, 2002 ( The Vatican approved the U.S. bishops' revised norms on how to deal with sex-abuse accusations against the clergy.

The announcement of the approval, or "recognitio," was made through the publication of a letter addressed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops' conference.

The American bishops on Nov. 13 approved the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons."

As Cardinal Re explains in his letter, this second writing, proposed by a mixed commission of representatives of the Vatican and for the U.S. bishops, surmounts the problems of the norms first approved last June in Dallas.

"The 'Essential Norms' in their present formulation are intended to give effective protection to minors and to establish a rigorous and precise procedure to punish in a just way those who are guilty of such abominable offenses because, as the Holy Father has said, 'there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," the letter states.

"At the same time, by ensuring that the true facts are ascertained, the approved Norms protect inviolable human rights -- including the right to defend oneself -- and guarantee respect for the dignity of all those involved, beginning with the victims," explains Cardinal Re's letter dated Dec. 8.

"Moreover, they uphold the principle, fundamental in all just systems of law, that a person is considered innocent until either a regular process or his own spontaneous admission proves him guilty," the cardinal writes.

Canon law experts said that the norms that were approved in June, cast doubt on fundamental principles of law, such as the presumed innocence of the accused.

As explained by the "recognitio" decree, also published today in Latin by the Vatican Press Office, and dated Dec. 8, the U.S. bishops established that after two years of application, the norms would be re-examined. Because of this, the Vatican "recognitio" is valid for two years.

The U.S. bishops' Web site said the norms now constitute "particular law" for the United States. The effective date is March 1.

Cardinal Re's letter expresses "appreciation for the pastoral concern and resolve with which the bishops of the United States have addressed the distressing situation caused by such aberrant crimes."

"The Holy See is fully supportive of the bishops' efforts to combat and to prevent such evil. The universal law of the Church has always recognized this crime as one of the most serious offenses which sacred ministers can commit, and has determined that they be punished with the most severe penalties, not excluding -- if the case so requires -- dismissal from the clerical state (cf. Canon 1395 § 2)," it clarifies.

"Moreover," the letter continues, "the Holy Father in the year 2001 already had determined that this crime should be included among the most serious delicts ('graviora delicta') of clerics, to underscore the Holy See's aversion to this betrayal of the trust which the faithful rightly place in Christ's ministers, and to ensure that the guilty will be appropriately punished. He therefore gave to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a special competence in this matter, applicable for the whole Church, establishing a particular procedure to be followed."

Cardinal Re said that "the Holy See is spiritually united to the victims of abuse and to their families, and encourages particular concern for them on the part of the bishops, priests and the whole Catholic community."

Evidence of this "closeness" is, precisely, the approval of the "Essential Norms," he explained. "This closeness is now once again confirmed through the approval of the present "Essential Norms," which will help to restore, wherever necessary, the trust of the faithful in their pastors, assuring at the same time the defense of the innocent and the just punishment of the guilty."

The cardinal believes that this difficult trial has served to reinforce the "genuine ecclesial communion between the episcopal conference and the Apostolic See," and calls for prayer to God "that from the present crisis might emerge, as the Holy Father has stated: 'a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.'"