Bishops adopt statement on sexual abuse problem

November 20, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An article in The Sun yesterday incorrectly stated that the nation's Roman Catholic bishops endorsed a proposed task force to deal with sexual abuse by priests. It was endorsed by an organization of sex-abuse victims.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- Goaded by wide publicity given to priests' sexual abuse of children, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops adopted their first public statement on the problem yesterday, calling on dioceses to deal with allegations promptly and "as openly as possible."

The resolution, passed unanimously by a voice vote, grew out of a meeting between Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and sex-abuse victims who demonstrated Monday in front of the Omni Shoreham Hotel here as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops began its four days of annual deliberations.


It has been estimated that child abuse by priests has cost the church about $400 million in financial settlements and other costs over the last decade.

Yesterday's resolution was immediately criticized by three national organizations of priests' victims as not going far enough.

They had called for a strict and uniform policy on child abusing priests in every Catholic diocese, claiming that in some dioceses such priests are still being shielded from prosecution.

The bishops endorsed a suggestion by Bishop John J. McRaith of Owensboro, Ky., that the national bishops' conference create a task force "to deal with difficult situations" involving sex abuse.

"This task force would be most effective if survivors are included in its membership," the group said.

Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, concluding his three-year term as president of the bishops' conference, predicted that any diocese without an announced policy to deal with the pedophile issue would be "putting one together sooner, rather than later."

But he also said that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops did not have the authority to require every diocese to follow the same policy.

While "I understand their urgency," Archbishop Pilarczyk said of the sex abuse victims, criminal statutes vary from state to state and must be dealt with individually.

The bishops' resolution, prepared in executive session, was an adaptation of a statement made by Archbishop Pilarczyk in June at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana after closed-door discussions by the bishops.

"I am humiliated and embarrassed that priests are involved in this kind of behavior, and we can't tolerate it," Archbishop Pilarczyk said yesterday.

After Monday's meeting with 10 men and women who had been sexually abused as children by priests, Cardinal Mahony told the conference the victims were "people who bear the scars of pain, hurt, alienation and abandonment . . . who are now pleading to be heard, to be recognized and to be a part of the healing and rebuilding which our church needs."

The Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, one of the groups that demonstrated Monday, said yesterday its members "are grateful to the NCCB for both meeting with survivors earlier this week and for the concern and care they [the bishops] have expressed in the statement they made this morning."

However, "the response by the bishops is still inadequate," a spokesman for the victims' group said, because it lacks assurance that policies "will be uniform and just in every diocese."

In yesterday's resolution, the nearly 300 Catholic bishops declared, "We pledge ourselves to one another to return to our dioceses and there to examine carefully and prayerfully our response to sexual abuse; to assure ourselves that our response is appropriate and effective, and to be certain that our people are aware of and confident in that response."

Where an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, dioceses were urged to "relieve the alleged offender of his ministerial duties and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention."

Not only should bishops promptly report incidents to legal authorities, cooperate in their investigations and "reach out to the victims and their families," they should "deal as openly as possible with members of the community," the resolution said.

It affirmed the bishops' support for "the thousands of good, holy and dedicated priests who minister faithfully to God's people."

The motion to adopt the resolution was made by Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, newly-elected president of the conference.

In his first address to the nation's Catholic bishops as their president yesterday, Archbishop Keeler criticized press coverage of the meeting.

Press reports have focused on what many of the bishops consider a non-issue: women's ordination.

The failure of the conference Wednesday to muster the votes needed for a pastoral letter on women followed intense debate over the document's perceived insensitivity toward women wanting to be priests.

"Sometimes the message" articulated by the bishops "simply does not get through, as witness some media reports of our meetings during these days," Archbishop Keeler said.

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York also criticized the news coverage, calling it "nonsensical."

Archbishop Keeler emphasized in his speech the church's opposition to abortion.

He said the bishops have been "defending and promoting God's wondrous gift of life at every stage, with renewed commitment to educate our people about how sacred this gift is and how important is every effort to offer help to expectant mothers tempted to abortion, so that each may choose life."

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