Clergy abuses `appalling sin,' pontiff says

Pope speaks to cardinals about church sex scandal

`Rightly considered a crime'

U.S. hierarchy considers `zero tolerance' policy

April 24, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Pope John Paul II, opening a two-day meeting of American cardinals at the Vatican called to address a sexual abuse scandal, issued a blunt denunciation of molestation by Roman Catholic priests yesterday, calling it "an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God," the pope told the delegation of 12 American cardinals. "To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."

The discussions at the Vatican focused on whether the American church should adopt a national "zero tolerance" policy that would permanently remove from the ministry any priest credibly accused of sexual abuse, but no agreement was reached, two U.S. church officials said in a briefing after yesterday's sessions.

The cardinals, bishops and Vatican officials also discussed the formation of lay boards of review to provide oversight on each diocese's handling of sexual abuse complaints.

The delegation of cardinals, including Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, along with the leadership of the U.S. bishops' conference, is scheduled to conclude its meetings with Vatican officials today as the officials attempt to deal with a sexual abuse scandal that has shaken confidence in the leadership of the 50 million-member American Catholic Church and has spurred increasingly insistent calls for the resignation of its senior prelate, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.

The pope met only briefly yesterday with the American cardinals as they conducted a wide-ranging discussion of the abuse scandal and of such issues as celibacy and homosexuality among priests and seminarians.

Some Vatican and other church officials have connected homosexuality with the sexual abuse crisis, pointing out that most victims are adolescent males. Revised Vatican guidelines on the admission of gay men to seminaries are expected next year.

"There does exist in any given seminary a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes a heterosexual young man think twice before entering a seminary for fear they would be identified with that orientation, or ... that they would be harassed," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is attending the meetings. "It is an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men, and that candidates are healthy in every possible way, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually."

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the issue of celibacy was discussed, but only in the context of "strengthening its endurance." He pointed to statistics that say only 1.5 percent of priests have failed to adhere to their promises of celibacy.

George said the subject of Law's resignation had not come up in their discussions, but that in a meeting of the American cardinals Monday night before the Vatican consultations, the Boston archbishop apologized to his fellow cardinals and acknowledged that had he not made mistakes in handling priest abusers, "we probably all wouldn't be here."

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the American delegation was planning to meet last night to hammer out a list of formal proposals for the U.S. church that would lead to a specific communique at the end of today's sessions. Keeler said the Americans hoped to gain preliminary Vatican approval before a June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas for a national policy on dealing with sexual abuse that would be binding on all dioceses, which would include mandatory reporting of allegations to civil authorities.

Although the subject of Law's status did not come up during the sessions, the pontiff made it clear how seriously he views the problem.

"Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter," the pope said.

The pope also gave mixed signals on whether he supports the American bishops' proposed policy of removing priests accused of sexual abuse.

In his remarks, the pope seemed at one point to support the policy, asserting that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." But he seemed to open the door for rehabilitation when he reminded the American prelates that "we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change."

George said he understood the confusion. "It isn't clear to me what the pope is saying ... but I'm sure there is still no consensus on this," George told reporters.

The cardinals, meeting on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, around a corner from the papal apartments, walked downstairs to John Paul's library to hear his remarks.

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