Bishops get tough on one-time abusers

Friday, June 14, 2002

DALLAS -- Trying to ease the clerical sex abuse crisis pounding the church, America's Roman Catholic bishops decided Thursday in a closed-door meeting to toughen their stance on one-time molesters.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago emerged from discussions with fellow church leaders saying the idea of allowing priests who abused one child in the past to remain in parish work was off the table.

"It gets rid of the provision that I was hoping they would get rid of," he said. "That language is unacceptable. That sounds as if you can do it once and no one would pay attention to you."

The U.S. bishops, moving at warp speed for a church that often debates issues for years, are trying to leave a historic meeting on sex abuse with a new national policy for handling molestation claims that restores their damaged credibility. They got to work Thursday after begging victims' forgiveness and hearing their anguished stories.

They met for several hours behind closed doors and wrapped up the session at about 10 p.m.

Some 250 accused priests have resigned or been dismissed from their duties since the crisis began in January. Four bishops also have stepped down.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, head of the committee drafting the new abuse policy, said his panel was weighing two options to present bishops when they vote on the plan today.

They are zero tolerance -- ousting any priest found guilty of abuse -- or something that stops just short of that. George said all abusers would be kept out of parishes, where they might have contact with children, though past one-time abusers might be able to remain priests.

In the initial policy draft, released last week, a priest who abused one minor in the past could be reassigned to a church -- though only if he underwent counseling, agreed to supervision and publicly disclosed his misconduct.

The private talks continued late into the evening.

Negotiations began after a dramatic start to the meeting, in which the bishops bluntly acknowledged that their mistakes helped cause the crisis. They then yielded the floor to victims who described how pain permeated their lives.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave a remarkably direct opening address, calling the crisis "perhaps the gravest we have faced."

Abuse victim Michael Bland, of Chicago, told the bishops how he joined the priesthood but then left after trying to convince church leaders to take action against his molester. He urged the prelates to get rid of all those who abuse children.

"The priesthood lost me but kept the perpetrator," Bland said. "The church has taken care of him."

Gregory pledged to take action to restore parishioners' badly shaken faith in the church hierarchy.

"The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership," he said. That's "because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel."

Bland, a psychologist who works with victims in the Chicago Archdiocese, said he came forward with his molestation claim while he was still a priest. Suddenly, he felt he "was no longer one of the good guys but one of the victims to be dealt with."

Craig Martin, 38, of St. Cloud, Minn., fought for composure as he told of the damage caused by a priest who abused him as a child. Martin could not even use his own name when telling his tale: he referred to himself as "John Doe."

Outside the hotel where the meeting was being held, about 50 people protested the church's handling of abuse cases early in the day.

About 150 people later attended an evening prayer service that started with the song "Healing River." An opening prayer included the line "fill the hearts of your faithful people gathered here and the hearts of our bishops gathered in earnest deliberation."

While Gregory has repeatedly apologized for the bishops' role in the crisis, his remarks Thursday were perhaps his most direct yet.

"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this," he said. "We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse."

One of the leaders hardest hit by the scandal, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, was planning to apologize to his fellow prelates, said his spokeswoman, Donna Morrisssey. The national crisis erupted after court documents in Boston revealed Law allowed a pedophile priest to continue to serve.

Gregory once again told victims he was sorry for the pain they suffered, and further asked forgiveness from the "faithful priests" whose reputations have been marred by the misconduct of a few. He also asked bishops who were guilty of abuse to turn themselves into Vatican authorities.

Once the bishops approve a reform policy, key provisions -- the ones that affect church law in America -- may be sent to the Vatican for approval to make them binding on all U.S. dioceses. Since each diocese answers to Rome, not the bishops' conference, the policy would need that nod from the Vatican to ultimately become more than a gentlemen's agreement.

Victims have been pressing a radical demand -- that U.S. church leaders lobby Rome to remove bishops who kept abusive clergy on duty while ignoring warnings. Bishops have not supported the idea.

In his first news conference since January, New York Cardinal Edward Egan said one past abuse incident will end a priest's ministry in his own archdiocese, but he declined to say what he thinks the bishops' conference should do.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said that he remained adamant about zero tolerance, insisting that the bishops must defrock any priest guilty of past abuse.

All of the nearly 400 retired and active bishops in the United States are invited to this week's conference, but only the active prelates -- who number around 285 -- can vote on the policy.

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