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Cardinals Call for Policy to Defrock Abusive Priests

Religion: The proposed rules on offenders are stricter than older guidelines but stop short of 'zero tolerance.'


VATICAN CITY — Emboldened by Pope John Paul II and stung by an unprecedented sexual abuse scandal at home, U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals called Wednesday for steps making it easier to defrock priests guilty of sexual abuse. But they stopped short of a "zero-tolerance" dismissal policy.

Wrapping up two days of extraordinary sessions with the pope and senior Vatican cardinals, the U.S. delegation said it had set the stage for a comprehensive plan to wrest the American church from its most serious moral and legal crisis in modern times.

Their final communique was short on specifics. It called for new procedures to speed the dismissal of any priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors," as well as first-time offenders deemed to be incorrigible. It recommended safeguards to screen out problem candidates from seminaries.

But it made no mention of other steps many of the cardinals had said they wanted: a "one-strike" rule for all future sex offenders, mandatory reporting of all abuse cases to law enforcement agencies, and greater involvement of lay Catholics in overseeing the church's treatment of offenders. Nor did it spell out how church canon law should be changed to make it easier to defrock priests while protecting their right to appeal.

Even so, the high-powered meetings are likely to be remembered as a defining moment, when an issue that the Vatican once viewed as an "American problem" irreversibly became its own. The meetings also increased pressure on American bishops to formally adopt a plan that will convince Catholics that they can entrust the church with their children.

Even with tougher standards of accountability and openness on sexual abuse, the cardinals said, it might take years for the church to regain its credibility. The scandal, they conceded, has not only damaged victims and cost millions of dollars in settlements, but it has also weakened the church's moral voice.

Critics of the church were disappointed by the communique but not surprised.

"Historically, there has been, and there remains, a huge gap between what bishops say and what bishops do," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Their promises sound good, but their performance is lacking."

Fundamental decisions lie ahead for the church. Chief among them is how to deal with priests who abused minors many years ago but have since appeared to be leading successful and healthy ministries. There is likely to be tension between bishops who believe in the Christian virtue of repentance and forgiveness, and an outraged public that seems in no mood to forgive and forget.

Before leaving Rome, the Vatican and U.S. cardinals dispatched a letter to the priests of America voicing "regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal."

They called on bishops to set aside a day of prayer and penance throughout the United States "to implore reconciliation" between sinners and abused members of their flock.

In their communique, the cardinals dismissed the idea, put forward by some Catholics, that a married priesthood would reduce pedophilia by clerics. The cardinals declared that "a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained," and they reaffirmed the requirement that priests lead celibate lives.

Speaking to reporters, the cardinals sounded confident that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would approve a comprehensive plan against sex abuse when its members meet in Dallas in June. They said the pope's exhortations and the chastising of bishops by an outraged public would spur the bishops to approve the still-unwritten plan.

"This meeting was neither the end nor the beginning of a response to the sex abuse crisis," said Father Thomas J. Reese, New York-based editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "We are in neither the first inning nor the last."

American bishops have been grappling with the sexual abuse issue for more than a decade. Indeed, some of the proposals outlined here Wednesday echoed similar initiatives advanced in 1993 but ignored in many dioceses.

For example, a report to the bishops conference in 1994 said the best way for the church to deal with accusations of child molestation by clergy was in "a spirit of openness, justice and compassion." It said sexual abuse policies should "clearly state a willingness to cooperate with government authorities to the extent possible."

Since then, dozens of American priests and a bishop have resigned or been fired because of sex abuse allegations.

There have also been calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, where the scandal began in January after the Boston Globe disclosed that his archdiocese had moved from parish to parish a pedophile priest accused of molesting as many as 130 boys over three decades.

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