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  From left, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington; and Bishop Gregory Wilton, head of the US Conference of Bishops, talk to reporters. (AP Photo)

Cardinals offer policy on abuse, stopping short of 'zero tolerance'

Proposals for removing priests to be presented to US bishops

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 4/25/2002

Statement released by church
Letter released by US cardinals

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VATICAN CITY - The American Catholic Church's top clerics yesterday issued an outline of new procedures to investigate priests accused of sexual misconduct and 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 priest sexual abuse scandal, the cardinals also issued a message to the 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.

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 US 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 Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US 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 a daylong struggle to draft legal language that could accommodate the requirements of the American 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.

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.

The highest levels of the Vatican cardinals who specialize in canon law were brought into the two-day meeting because, observers said, the Vatican understands the severity of the problem and wants to be sure the American response to it is synchronized with Vatican doctrine. The cardinals said they wanted to avoid adopting guidelines in June that are later vetoed by the Vatican.

In addition to Gregory and a Vatican spokesman, only two cardinals attended a packed press 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 press 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 did not attend the late-night, boisterous gathering of reporters who had waited more than 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.''

Many of the reporters, who represented media outlets from several countries, reacted angrily to Law's absence. ''Is he dodging us?'' one reporter asked.

''I could not tell you why he is not here. I could not tell you what is on Cardinal Law's calendar,'' Gregory said.

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 Law's resignation during the 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.''

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said he did not have enough information to comment on whether the pope supported Law.

The cardinals said they did not write 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.''

Another core issue troubling the American church following the wave of scandals has been the priestly vow of celibacy. The church leaders declared that ''a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained.''

The group, as expected, reaffirmed priestly celibacy.

The church leaders said they also will ask US bishops to approve a set of national standards in sexual abuse cases that will be imposed on every bishop and diocese - a break from tradition since bishops historically have had great individual power and discretion in excercising punishment.

McCarrick outlined a multistep process in which an accused priest would be put on ''administrative leave'' and removed from clerical duties while the case is investigated. The procedures also include church pastoral service to victims and psychiatric treatment for the accused priest.

''We want to move expeditiously, but we want to move correctly,'' he told reporters.

Speaking to CNN, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the new process would allow bishops for the first time to attempt to remove a priest against the priest's will - something the pope has been reluctant to support out of fear that bishops would use the power indiscriminately.

''The pope doesn't want decisions like that to be administrative; he lived as he told us again and again in a communist state where administrative law was misused against human rights,'' George said.

The pope's words of caution seemed mindful, observers said, that he must ensure that any new procedures can fit within the ''universal church,'' which must find a way to live within the differing legal structures that exist all over the world. McCarrick said the pope's message to cardinals at Tuesday's opening session was clear. The pontiff said ''there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.''

Over a working lunch of pasta, meat, vegetables, and wine with the US delegation yesterday, the pope reiterated his position, McCarrick said.

In Tuesday's address, John Paul recognized the damage the scandal has caused the church. ''Many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted,'' the pontiff said.

Using his strongest language yet, the pope called sexual abuse of minors by priests an ''appalling sin'' and a crime against society.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2002.
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