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World Perspective | Religion

Panel Urges Britain's Catholics to Get Tough on Child Abusers

April 21, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The archbishop of Westminster admitted that he made a mistake when he ignored warnings about a priest he appointed as Gatwick Airport chaplain who was subsequently convicted of nine sexual offenses. But rather than resign, the cardinal appointed a commission to study how to root out sexual abusers from the Roman Catholic Church.

This week, the commission made wide-ranging recommendations to crack down on pedophilia, including police checks on clergy and lay staff, a national database on candidates for the priesthood and a child-protection representative in all parishes.

In the most serious cases, priests convicted of child abuse should lose their collars, the commission said in a report issued Tuesday and expected to be adopted by the bishops of England and Wales at a meeting next week.

Twenty-one Catholic priests were convicted of sexually abusing children in the region between 1995 and 1999. Although the offenders represent a small minority of the 5,600 priests in England and Wales, Catholic leaders say pedophiles have damaged the image and moral authority of the church much as they have in the United States, Canada and Ireland.

The archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, commissioned the report in September after he acknowledged that he had erred in appointing Father Michael Hill to the Gatwick Airport chapel.

Hill was released from prison last fall after serving 3 1/2 years of a five-year sentence for nine sexual attacks, including one on a boy with learning disabilities whom he had met at the chapel.

"We are committed to ensuring that the Catholic Church becomes the safest of places for children," Murphy-O'Connor said as the report was released, adding that he wants his church to become "an example to everyone on proper procedures for child protection and dealing with allegations."

The Vatican lauded the cardinal's efforts to clean house.

"We want the problem of pedophilia confronted and stopped wherever it happens," said a spokesman, Father Ciro Benedettini.

The Vatican ordered the replacement of the archbishop of Cardiff, John Ward, last year amid accusations that he too ignored warnings about a pedophile priest. In that case, Father Joseph Jordan was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The report on child protection in the Roman Catholic Church was issued by a 10-member committee headed by Michael Nolan, a former member of Britain's highest court, the Law Lords.

The recommendations aim to prevent pedophiles from getting into the church and, if they do, to make it easier to detect and report their abuses.

Many British victims of pedophile priests have said that when they dared to report sexual abuses, the church was skeptical and quick to close ranks behind the priests. They note that pedophiles are adept at hiding their crimes, and they have expressed doubt that voluntary measures will eliminate the problem.

In addition to recommending a database to help vet candidates for the priesthood, the Nolan report said applicants for work in the church should be asked to disclose any criminal offenses against children. Bishops and religious superiors should not overrule selection boards when they express reservations about a candidate's suitability for ordination on the grounds of a possible risk to children, the report said.

The measures are similar to guidelines used to screen teachers, youth counselors, sports instructors and other professionals working with children in Britain.

Catholics are a minority in Britain, numbering about 4 million in England and Wales, or less than 8% of the population.

John Wilkins, editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper the Tablet, noted that there is a danger of false accusations against priests under the proposed measures but said: "That can't be helped. This is the right way to go, and it's better than what happened before, when people in the church sided with the perpetrators."

He said most priests will embrace the recommendations because they have been demoralized by the scandals.

"They are all horrified by what has happened," Wilkins said. "They are keen to get the rotten apples out of the barrel."

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Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report.

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