Cardinals struggle with tolerance policy

Saturday, April 27, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Under intense public pressure to act decisively against abusive priests, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua joined Roman Catholic leaders Friday who want a "one-strike-and-you're-out" policy.

The U.S. cardinals returned from this week's Vatican summit on the clerical sex abuse crisis struggling to build consensus for a tough approach among the nation's bishops.

On Friday, they seemed a little closer. In addition to Bevilacqua, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis added their support. Flynn heads a committee developing the bishops' collective response to the scandal.

"All of the cardinals are agreed on zero tolerance, and by that I mean that we all are agreed that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ecclesial ministry or any capacity in our dioceses," Bevilacqua said before an annual benefit dinner.

Other cardinals, including Edward Egan of New York and Francis George of Chicago, said this week they aren't sure that Pope John Paul II called for such a policy during the Vatican meeting.

No single cardinal or bishop can enact a national policy, since each diocese is autonomous. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at its meeting in June, is expected to vote on whether to approve a national policy that will be binding on every diocese.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said the church may create a national advisory panel of experts to help bishops devise policies for handling sex abuse. He said bishops in every diocese already have committees of lay people for advice on social issues.

As they left Rome, the cardinals said they would recommend a process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors."

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said Friday that the pope clearly endorsed zero tolerance for priest sex abuse. Flynn a day earlier said he supported zero-tolerance, though the church might find a role for fallen priests outside "a pastoral setting."

Weakland said the Milwaukee Archdiocese is adopting a zero-tolerance policy. Credible allegations will result in the removal of the accused priest from active ministry pending the results of an archdiocese investigation. Substantiated allegations will be reported to authorities.

In all, eight cardinals, including the embattled Bernard Law of Boston, were expected at the $1,000-a-plate fund raiser for Catholic University.

Law, who has been under public pressure to step down, declined comment Friday on speculation that he will be given a Vatican post. Boston became the epicenter of the scandal when it was disclosed that church leaders there had repeatedly reassigned a priest accused of abusing children.

Law served as bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese from 1973 to 1984. It was his first assignment as bishop. He was transferred to the Boston archdiocese in 1984 and made a cardinal the following year.

The Rev. David O'Connell, president of the school, said Law denied that a job change was imminent.

"There is no plan whatsoever that he be replaced and be moving to Rome in June or any time in the near future," O'Connell said. "And that's directly from the cardinal."

Former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who calls Law a personal friend, said he doubts the cardinal would step down before bishops finish crafting a uniform national policy on dealing with sexual abuse allegations.

"I would see him playing a key role marshaling that support in the United States, then providing the leadership in Rome to have the Holy See approve it," Flynn said.

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