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  Cardinal Bernard Law at the opening session of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas on June 13, 2002. (Globe Staff Photo / Evan Richman)

Apologies sent; policy sought

Law described as regretful; bishops debate child protection

By Michael Paulson and Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 6/14/2002

DALLAS - Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston yesterday apologized in a closed-door session to his fellow bishops for his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases, according to two bishops who were in attendance.

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It provided a dramatic coda to a day that began with the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops abjectly apologizing to the nation for the way bishops have behaved.

Over the course of an emotional day, the bishops listened to blistering criticism from prominent laypeople and tearful stories from abuse victims, then retreated in an effort to hammer out a policy to stem the scandal confronting the nation's largest religious denomination.

The bishops planned to work into the night to refine a proposed child protection policy that would be binding for all dioceses. Bishops said they believed they had reached a consensus on a retroactive zero-tolerance policy that would bar any priest who has ever abused a minor from serving in ministry.

The day's most dramatic moments came as the most prominent church officials sought forgiveness from one another and the public.

Law, whose stature as the nation's most influential Catholic prelate has been seriously damaged by outrage over his failure to remove abusive priests from ministry, started the day by apologizing privately to Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., for sending an abusive priest, the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, to the San Bernardino Diocese with a note from a Law aide saying that Shanley was a priest in good standing.

At the private afternoon session, Law apologized to his fellow bishops for his actions, which precipitated the current crisis, according to two bishops who were present.

''He reflected on those circumstances,'' said Bishop W. Francis Malooly, an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, asked if Law's apology dealt with his handling of the Boston cases. ''It was a personal thing.''

Another bishop, who asked not to be identified, said Law apologized ''for the fact that all of this had erupted, for the way he handled cases in the past. He said he realizes that people zero in on him and that - these are my words - he's the lightning rod.''

The apologies are not new - Law has apologized to the public in Boston, and he apologized to his fellow cardinals in Rome in late April. But yesterday's apologies were different, coming in the midst of a ferocious public debate over how the church might hold bishops accountable.

Law, who has not spoken to the media since February, did not speak to reporters yesterday.

Gregory, the top official of the conference, said bishops have failed to remove abusive priests from ministry. He repeatedly has said that bishops should have known better, at least since 1992, when the bishops adopted voluntary recommendations for preventing clergy sexual abuse.

''The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a number of bishops during the past 10 years,'' he said. ''The anger over this is very real, and very understandable. I know. I feel it myself.''

After months in which some church defenders have blamed victims, lawyers, the media, and various interest groups for the crisis, Gregory laid the blame at the feet of his fellow prelates, and he begged forgiveness. He said seeking penance is not an obligation for Catholics at large, but for the bishops themselves.

''We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or, God forbid, with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse,'' he said. ''We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this.''

Gregory said the bishops had worried more about scandal than abuse prevention, and had at times responded to victims as adversaries, rather than as ''suffering members of the church.''

Gregory apologized directly to victims, to parents of victims, to ''faithful priests'' and other clergy. He called on victims who have not yet done so to report abuse allegations to civil authorities and the church, and urged abusive priests and bishops who have not yet been discovered to turn themselves in to church officials. And Gregory slammed his fellow bishops for failing to follow the voluntary child protection measures the bishops recommended a decade ago.

Gregory's address marked the formal opening of the bishops' meeting, which is devoted exclusively to devising a child protection policy. An estimated 1,500 priests have been accused of molesting children over five decades, according to lawyers; at least 250 have been ousted for past acts of abuse this year alone. Four US bishops have resigned this year amid their own sex scandals, and many other bishops have been accused of protecting abusive priests.

The bishops are hoping today to approve a policy that would require every diocese to report suspected child abuse to secular authorities for investigation, and would remove from ministry all priests who abuse minors. The bishops plan to ask Pope John Paul II to laicize, or defrock, many of those priests. The bishops also propose to establish an office to monitor compliance with their new policy, and say they will issue public reports on every diocese every year.

The bishops began debating the policy yesterday afternoon in private, and worked into the night. They were given colored cards and urged to flash a green card if they supported a proposal, a red card if they opposed it, and a yellow card if they had questions.

But Gregory said many of the specifics were still being hammered out by a subcommittee, and would be fully debated in public today. During yesterday's closed-door sessions, he said, ''the bishops spoke very frankly about their angers, their fears, their disappointments, and their hopes. We asked each other some very candid, direct questions; we expressed regret for mistakes that had been made. I think we were quite honest with each other.''

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said several bishops stood up to apologize.

''People asked for the opportunity to say what's in their hearts before we even started to address the documents, and individual bishops took the opportunity to do that,'' he said.

Hubbard said he is concerned that the bishops may run short of time to fully debate the policy specifics. ''The mood here is one of grave concern that we do the right thing,'' he said. ''I have some concern that we're going to be very rushed to do a good job.''

By yesterday afternoon, there was an unmistakable momentum toward a ''zero-tolerance'' policy that would remove from all ministry any priest who has ever abused a child. That policy is tougher than the one proposed by a bishops' subcommittee, which had suggested asking the pope to defrock all future abusers, but only those past abusers who had committed more than one act of molestation.

Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of Greensburg, Pa., said he expected the zero-tolerance policy to be overwhelmingly ratified today.

''My hunch is that if anybody was moved today they were moved toward zero tolerance,'' he said. ''I wouldn't want to go through this past year again. This has been the worst time in my years as a bishop.''

Bosco said he welcomes the no-holds-barred tone of yesterday's session with victims.

''The bishops were spellbound,'' he said. ''I didn't see anybody sleeping, which we do occasionally because frequently they're boring. I saw everybody on the edge of their chairs. I saw genuine applause. They were touched.''

Asked if there was anger directed at some bishops who knowingly sheltered abusive priests, Bosco replied: ''Even if there's somebody that you love and you see them do something dumb, you still love them but you want to hit them upside the head. ... This is not a crisis of faith, it's a crisis of leadership. And I would like to believe that just as we are supposed to be forgiven that people will forgive us and say, `OK you goofed. Now shape up.'''

Hartford Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza called the blunt rhetoric leveled at the bishops the ecclesiastical equivalent of a Pedro Martinez fastball.

''We're so punch-drunk at this point, that another couple belts doesn't hurt that much,'' he said. ''It's to the point of even criticizing members of the conference.''

Bishop Robert E. Mulvee of Providence said the bishops have largely reached consensus on the tougher zero-tolerance policy.

''The issue of zero tolerance is pretty much hammered out,'' he said.

But some bishops were still on the fence, including Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of Springfield, Mass., who said he was still deliberating after being moved by the presentation of victims.

''Obviously they're all in favor of zero tolerance, and I think their feelings will certainly have an impact on all of us,'' Dupre said. ''I certainly was affected by it. It certainly will have an influence on me, but I want to hear what everybody has to say before I make a decision.''

Thomas Farragher of the Globe Staff contribued to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.
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