Fundamental church doctrines complicate priest abuse scandal

Roman Catholic teachings on nature of priesthood, sin play into debate


ROME - It started as a terrible secret, behind the doors of a rectory, or in a dark sacristy, or in a classroom after everyone else had left: a child was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest.

Now satellite television trucks are parked outside St. Peter's Square covering an unprecedented Vatican meeting in which Pope John Paul II told American cardinals and other top advisers that sexual abuse by the church's priests requires "a purification of the entire Catholic community."

Yet with intense attention focused on whether the meeting will produce remedies to wash clean the mark on the world's most powerful church, several prelates acknowledged that purifying the church of its abusive priests will be a struggle.

Although no bishop wants to be perceived as protecting sexually abusive priests, fundamental church teachings stand in the way, including the nature of the priesthood and the belief in the absolution of sin and the possibility of redemption.

Just as critical is the clerical wall of silence that church critics say has protected some priest abusers. As with police, soldiers or any profession that grooms members to see themselves as part of an elite, church leaders themselves have been hesitant to turn in their brethren.

During a break in the sessions, several cardinals and a bishop said they are still debating whether it is permissible to allow a priest who has been accused of sexual abuse to keep working in ministry. That problem has stoked the scandal in the past four months, as communities learned that one bishop after another reassigned priests who had old accusations of abuse against them to new parishes.

"The question of the reassignment of priests or religious who have harmed children is still a thorny issue," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the church's critics, following the meeting from the United States, asked why that is an issue. In St. Louis, David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that if the bishops really wanted to purify the church they would announce a moratorium on reassigning priests who have sexually abused children.

"They're out of touch with most of Western society," Clohessy said. "It's not a thorny issue in public education, in therapeutic circles or in day care. In most occupations dealing with kids it's a no-brainer and fundamentally, given the church's history, it ought especially to be a no-brainer."

Some bishops and cardinals have recently announced a "zero-tolerance" policy for sexual abusers and have suggested that every American diocese set that standard.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said his archdiocese had instituted such a policy several years ago, likening it to what happens to doctors guilty of malpractice.

"He's a restored human being, but he's not practicing medicine any more," Mahony said. With priests who abuse children, "once that threshold has been crossed we simply cannot take a chance."

But other bishops would like the prerogative to be able to reassign to ministry a priest who has gone through treatment and rehabilitation, and who can be closely supervised by his fellow pastors or religious community.

One obstacle facing the bishops is a Catholic doctrine that distinguishes the church from other Christian denominations: Ordination is a sacrament, and a priest is a priest for life.

There is no mechanism for punishing an ordained man by taking away his ability to administer the sacraments, unless he wants to give it up.

A priest can be reassigned or sentenced to prison by the courts, but unless he decides to cut himself off from the priesthood, he is still a priest. Even a defrocked priest is still a priest.

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