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CRISIS RESPONSE: Eleven months into the clergy sexual abuse scandal, on Dec. 13, 2002, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston.
CRISIS RESPONSE: Eleven months into the clergy sexual abuse scandal, on Dec. 13, 2002, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston. (AP File Photo)

Late in pontiff's reign, clergy sex abuse case rocked the church

The final years of John Paul II's papacy were dominated in the United States by the worst crisis in the church's American history: an explosive scandal which revealed that more than 4,300 priests had allegedly sexually abused more than 10,000 children and adolescents since 1950.

The crisis began in Boston in January 2002, with the publication of a series of stories in the Globe, but it quickly spread through the country and then through other developed nations, as victims and investigators accused bishops of repeatedly failing to remove abusive priests from ministry.

John Paul II's response was relatively swift: In April, 2002, he summoned all of the cardinals of the United States to the Vatican for an unprecedented summit on the clergy sexual abuse crisis that was buffeting the Catholic Church.

And ultimately, the pope's response was dramatic: In December, 2002, he accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, whose failure to oust sexually abusive priests had come to symbolize the Catholic Church's mishandling of the crisis. But the pope did not emerge unscathed.

Critics said John Paul II's Vatican had been slow to respond to the problem of abuse by priests, which had first come to public attention in the early 1980s. Although the Vatican had approved the ''laicization,'' or defrocking, of a handful of notorious abusers, such as Boston's John J. Geoghan, Rome also resisted disciplining other accused priests. For example, the Vatican fought a long battle against Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh over Rev. Anthony Cipolla, agreeing to defrock Cipolla only in 2002, 24 years after he was first accused of abuse.

The pope accepted the resignation of 15 bishops from around the world between 1990 and 2002 for reasons related to sexual misconduct, but critics said the pope should in 2002 have removed more of the American bishops who had failed to protect children.

''Plenty of survivors and Catholics wish he had done more sooner,'' said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Clohessy credits the pope with approving a child protection policy for the US church in 2002, but he faults the pope for appointing American bishops whom he views as ''very loyal men and very doctrinaire ... but not particularly courageous or compassionate pastors for the most part.''

The pope further angered many when, in May of 2004, he appointed Law to a prestigious, although largely ceremonial, post overseeing the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. John Paul II acknowledged the problem of clergy sexual abuse as early as 1993, when, speaking at World Youth Day in Denver, he rued ''the sins of some ministers of the altar.''

At the April 2002 meeting, the pope signalled his support for a zero tolerance policy by declaring to the gathered cardinals ''there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.'' Eight months later, the Vatican approved new church law, applicable only in the United States, requiring that ''When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established ... the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry.''

The pope disappointed some by not visiting the United States during the crisis. In Toronto, during the summer of 2002, he declined a request to meet with victims of abuse, and urged participants at a World Youth Day Mass to keep the scandal in perspective.

''The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame,'' he said. ''But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good.''

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