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MEETING AT THE HOLY SEE

Priesthood Has 'No Place' for Abusers, Pope Declares

Religion: John Paul II calls molestation a civil crime and a sin, but it is not clear if he supports a 'zero tolerance' policy.

April 24, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ROME — Pope John Paul II, in a ringing denunciation of sexual abuse, declared Tuesday that there is no place in the Roman Catholic priesthood for those who molest the young.

Speaking to an extraordinary meeting of cardinals summoned from the United States in the wake of the clerical sex scandal rocking the American church, John Paul called the abuse of minors both a civil crime and "an appalling sin."

The pope's emphatic statement, several cardinals said later, was an unmistakable signal that he expects bishops to cooperate fully with law enforcement authorities in ferreting out offending priests.

But he offered no explicit guidance on whether the church should enforce a "one-strike" rule to defrock any priest found to have molested a minor. Some cardinals, meeting at the Vatican to set guidelines to handle sex offenses, said the pope's nuanced statement was open to interpretation.

Shifting from the defensive tone of his recent remarks, which had agonized over the scandal's demoralizing blow to the church and its clergy, John Paul sounded a note of compassion for the victims of sexual abuse. Since January, dozens of American priests have been accused of sex crimes, and bishops have been faulted for covering up some of the incidents.

"To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," John Paul said in remarks to the cardinals that were later released by the Vatican. The actions of abusive priests, he said, have caused "suffering and scandal to the young" and undermined trust in the church.

"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," the pope told the 12 U.S. cardinals, two U.S. bishops and leading Vatican cardinals. "They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality."

But John Paul, who believes in the transformative power of religious experiences, also raised the possibility of a changed life for a repentant fallen priest.

"We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God," he said.

Whether a priest undergoing such a "conversion" would be allowed to remain a priest remained open to question.

"This isn't clear to me either," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters. "So I'm not sure where that [papal] discourse leads us on that question of 'zero tolerance.' " Even the U.S. delegation, George said, was not in agreement on that issue.

"There is a difference between a moral monster who preys upon little children, who does so in serial fashion, and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affections," George told reporters.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said it was evident to him from the pope's remarks that the church has a dual role--to protect and help the victim, and to help the perpetrator.

"What he [John Paul] really was saying is you must take the person who is the abuser or the molester and work with them. That doesn't mean you reassign them to the priesthood," Mahony said.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the reassignment of abusive priests remained "a thorny issue."

Credibility Concerns

One thing was clear: Cardinals and bishops who weeks ago avoided public discussion of the growing scandal are now eager to pose as articulate reformers. Public relations representatives for the U.S. bishops conference were flown here from Washington to arrange daily media briefings, and several cardinals spoke to reporters on their own.

"Obviously, the question of the credibility of bishops is a real concern," Gregory said. "We've passed the time for mea culpas. We're in the season for action."

David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said, "The real test of whether or not there will be serious reform will come long after the media spotlight and legal pressure abates."

At first ignored by the Vatican, the scandals have threatened to taint John Paul's long papacy, casting him in his twilight years as an enfeebled pontiff distant from the problems afflicting his church and overly protective of his clergy.

But his forceful speech Tuesday dispelled that image.

In one elegant passage, the pope gave thanks for good works by the "vast majority" of American priests, who are free of scandal, and offered a judgment of the American church that might also fit his own reign: "A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains."

"We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community," John Paul said. "So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church."

"That line hit me," said Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit. "That's the challenge."

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