Cardinals stop short of policy of `zero tolerance' for priests

U.S. hierarchy agrees on guidelines to defrock `notorious, serial' abusers

April 25, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

VATICAN CITY - The Roman Catholic Church's top American clerics issued an outline yesterday of new procedures to investigate priests accused of sexual misconduct and to dismiss priests guilty of sexually abusing a minor - but stopped short of calling for the automatic dismissal of all sexually abusive priests.

At the end of an unprecedented two-day emergency summit to confront the sex-abuse scandal, the cardinals also issued a message to priests in the United States, apologizing for the hierarchy's failures to provide the oversight that could have saved the church from the recent scandal-related turmoil and the victims from so much pain.

But the 12 American cardinals and two senior bishops stopped short - for now, at least - of a so-called "zero tolerance" policy that would call for immediately defrocking an abusive priest.

The church leaders will take their recommendations to the U.S. Conference of Bishops meetings in June in Dallas and present the final binding policies on dealing with abusive priests to all of the 194 American dioceses.

"There is a growing consensus certainly among the faithful, among the bishops, that it is too great a risk to assign a priest who has abused a child to another ministry," said Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

The document produced yesterday left many matters open to be debated by the bishops in June.

The cardinals emerged last night from an intense daylong struggle to draft legal language that could accommodate the requirements of the U.S. justice system as well as the rights to due process that the church is careful to uphold for its priests.

The American prelates said they would recommend a special process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors."

But they made a legal distinction in cases that are "not notorious" and said they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide whether an accused priest is a threat to children and should be defrocked.

The struggle on this section of the three-page "Final Communique," as the document was titled, reflected the leaders' struggle to come up with strong language that would remove predatory priests and protect children, but not so strong that it would undercut the rights of priests, who are considered the wards of the church from the time they are ordained until the day they die.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore has been among those bishops reluctant to impose a zero tolerance policy in his diocese.

The child abuse policy of the Archdiocese of Baltimore states that if there is a "reasonable probability" that a priest has abused a minor, the archbishop will "weigh carefully the possibility of any future employment or ministry with special concern regarding any position which gives access to minors."

Officials from the Archdiocese of Baltimore have stated that although returning a priest abuser to ministry would be rare, they did not want to exclude the possibility.

In at least one instance, Keeler's lay review board disagreed with his decision to reinstate a pastor who had been accused of sexual abuse.

Over the board's objection, Keeler allowed the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to return to St. Edward's parish in West Baltimore in 1993 after police dropped an investigation into whether the priest inappropriately touched a male teen and parishioners demanded his reinstatement.

Five years later, Blackwell was stripped of his priestly duties after admitting a sexual relationship with a minor 20 years before.

In addition to Gregory and a Vatican spokesman, only two cardinals attended a packed news conference at the Press Office of the Holy See - Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who is president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the Vatican.

The news conference was supposed to have been attended by all of the American cardinals, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, but he and the other eight cardinals were not present at the late-night, boisterous gathering of reporters who had waited well over two hours for the communique to be delivered.

"It was the intention of all of the cardinals to be present. However, presuming that the press conference would take place earlier, some of them made plans," Gregory told reporters. "Some of them simply could not get out of those plans. I am not certain what the situation is with Cardinal Law."

Law was in a private residence at the Plaza Santa Marta inside Vatican City and has stuck by his two-month-long moratorium on interviews with the media.

Asked whether there was any discussion of resignation by Law during the historic, two-day meeting - something that had been suggested before the gathering began - Gregory added: "The situation regarding Cardinal Law is a matter that belongs exclusively to the holy father and to Cardinal Law."

The cardinals said they did not write out a specific policy for church leaders who reassign sexually abusive priests - as Law and some bishops have been accused of doing.

"I think that is going to be an unwritten policy. I can't see how anyone in the United States today would cover up something like that," McCarrick said.

"I can't see anyone with a responsibility in the church ever trying to cover up anything like that again."

Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

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