U.S. Catholic leaders divided over handling of `old' abuse

Head of bishops' group says statement reflects need for balance of rights


Amid mounting criticism over the results of the Vatican meeting this week on sex abuse by priests, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday that top American church officials remain deeply divided over whether they should end the career of any priest who has been accused of abusing a child years before.

In an interview as he flew back to the United States after a two-day meeting between Vatican officials and American cardinals, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory said their recommendations reflected an attempt to make the care and consideration for victims the highest priority while still protecting an accused priest's right to due process.

Gregory said he expected that when the American bishops meet in Dallas in June, they will endorse a "zero tolerance" policy for all cases of priests who abuse minors from now on.

But he said they are still divided about whether it is always right to remove from ministry those priests with old accusations against them.

The question about whether to act on old cases is crucial because the vast majority of child abuse victims wait many years before they find the courage or motivation to talk about what happened to them.

"The simplest response would be, there is no difference" between the old and new cases, said Gregory. "However, I may find out about an incident that occurred 35 years ago, and the perpetrator has been as far as we know absolutely faithful in his service since then. You can understand the dilemma."

As Gregory and the cardinals who discussed the crisis with Vatican officials flew home to the United States, many American Catholics expressed reactions including confusion, disappointment and outright irritation with the outcome of the Rome conference.

A few said they were satisfied that the Vatican had taken the upheaval in the church seriously enough to summon the cardinals for a dialogue.

But in interviews with Catholics from New York to Missouri to Los Angeles, many priests, theologians, criminal prosecutors and victims of priestly abuse said they had hoped for more from the conference.

The Rev. Ken Lasch, whose parish church in Mendham, N.J., was thrown into turmoil in years past by an abusive priest who preceded him, said the Rome meeting left him and his parishioners "guarded, waiting for something concrete."

"We weren't naive enough to think that something revolutionary would come out of a two-day meeting," he said. "But we expect something thorough and strict to come out soon. Many of our parishioners work in professional fields where if somebody does something damaging they pay a severe penalty."

One bishop, Edward J. O'Donnell of the Diocese of Lafayette, La., where the church scandal surfaced in the mid-1980s, described a mood that appeared to be held by Catholics nationwide.

"I think there was satisfaction that the meetings were held, but I know that among practicing Catholics, there was also a disappointment, which I share," he said. "I don't think the cardinals were specific enough in how we as bishops can proceed."

Many Catholics said they had read the cardinals' joint statement, issued Wednesday at the close of their Rome meeting. One passage said that the cardinals would propose to the bishops who lead the 194 U.S. dioceses that a new, apparently expedited process be established to remove priests involved in "the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors," and whose activities have become "notorious."

At the same time, the cardinals proposed to create a separate process for priests considered a threat to young people, but who have not become "notorious."

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the bishops conference, said in an interview on the plane that the distinctions between "notorious" and other priestly abusers were made only because they refer to the code of canon law, the laws of the Roman Catholic Church.

At their meeting, the cardinals won agreement from the Vatican to amend the code of canon law to make it easier for a bishop to have a priest defrocked against his will. The bishops sought permission from the Vatican to do this back in 1993 but did not succeed, Maniscalco said.

Much of the disappointment was based on the nature of the document that the cardinals issued. The document did not reflect some of the common-sense proposals that Gregory and other cardinals had recently said they expected to institute.

For example, it did not say that U.S. bishops would immediately refer new allegations to civil authorities, or that they would establish boards composed predominantly of lay people, including parents and perhaps victims, to review abuse complaints.

That omission caught the attention of Hamilton County prosecutor Michael K. Allen, who is conducting a grand jury probe into Cincinnati diocesan priests accused of sexual abuses.

"The main disappointment for me was that apparently there was no specific proposal, guidance or directive for the reporting of these sex abuse crimes to the police and prosecutors," Allen said.

Yet some Catholics interviewed yesterday seemed encouraged by the meeting.

"I think they've made an excellent beginning," said Kathleen O'Connell, a lawyer at the Wall Street firm of Murphy & O'Connell. "The church moves slowly. Nobody is going to get away with this in the future."

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