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Spotlight Report

Amid disappointment, hopes for compromise with Vatican

By Corey Dade, Globe Staff, 10/20/2002

Some Boston-area Catholics expressed disappointment yesterday at the Vatican's refusal to accept outright the US bishops' proposed zero-tolerance policy against sexually abusive priests. But while some Catholics saw the decision as the latest clash between a conservative leadership in Rome and an American church struggling to repair damage caused by the scandal, many remained optimistic about a compromise.

''I don't fault them for taking their time and analyzing the situation rather than acting viscerally,'' said Alan Fracalosi, a member of St. Mary Parish in Norton, ''but they need to come up with a policy that puts the protection of the children first.''

In a two-page letter to the bishops, the Vatican characterized several aspects of the policy as confusing and ambiguous ''because the `Norms' and `Charter' contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church.''

A commission of four American bishops and four Vatican officials is being formed to fashion a compromise policy by Nov. 11, when the US bishops meet again.

The bishops' policy, enacted this year, has led to the removal of two dozen priests in Boston and 300 nationwide, but has also given rise to complaints that priests' rights are being trampled. Under its terms, abusive priests are permanently stripped of ministry duties, prohibited from celebrating Mass publicly, from donning clerical dress, or presenting themselves publicly as priests.

The Vatican is concerned about the policy's broad definition of sexual abuse, the role of lay review boards in the removal process, and, most of all, how priests are ousted, a method critics say denies priests their rights to due process under canon law.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law has said the major tenets of the proposal will survive the Vatican's scrutiny. And the Boston Archdiocese's new policy of immediately removing abusive priests from service satisfies the Vatican's standard of upholding priests' rights, he said.

Yesterday, reactions to the Vatican's statements included complaints that the Catholic Church continues protecting priests at the expense of abused minors. Leaving Mass at the St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston, one parishioner struggled to rationalize the Vatican's reticence to accept the bishops' policy given the months of scandal in the American church.

''It's difficult to understand why somebody would go against a zero-tolerance policy. You look at an issue like this and say everything should be cut and dried, but I don't know all the issues,'' said the man, who declined to give his name. ''Plus, I think Americans are more free-thinking in the sense of religion. There is definitely a difference between here'' and the Vatican.

But protecting priests' rights struck a chord even among those in Greater Boston pressing for change.

Linda MacKay is one of the St. Agatha parishioners in Milton who took a stand against Law's acknowledged failure to punish abusive priests when she withheld her donation from the cardinal's annual fund drive this year. MacKay balances her desire for change - and for the laity to play a key role in that effort - against her hope that policy changes don't infringe on the rights of innocent priests.

''Just a slight allegation should not be cause for them to be guilty and have their names broadcast through the media. It's terrible to paint all priests with that broad brush, and there should be some protection for them,'' said MacKay. ''There could be some wisdom to looking at the zero-tolerance policy. I think good priests are feeling real vulnerable.''

Erick Ralston believes the court system, not the bishops or the pope, should determine the fate of accused priests. The threshold for removing a priest should be whether he is found guilty of a crime, Ralston said, as he entered St. Margaret Church in Dorchester yesterday for services.

''There should be a zero-tolerance policy because they couldn't control this in the first place and they've been covering it up for years,'' he said. ''So we should allow full public inspection of the allegations and allow the criminal courts to decide.''

Corey Dade can be reached at

Globe correspondents Caroline Cole and Jenny Jiang contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A31 of the Boston Globe on 10/20/2002.
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