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Bishop: 'We did not go far enough'

Conference hears testimony from abuse victims

Bishop Wilton Gregory
Bishop Wilton Gregory  

DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- After hearing emotional and sobering testimony from people sexually abused by priests when they were minors, America's Roman Catholic bishops met behind closed doors Thursday afternoon to hammer out the final details on a new set of policies designed to prevent future abuse.

Bishops are expected Friday to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy that would remove priests from ministry if there are substantive allegations that they engaged in sexual abuse.

A highly placed official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas told CNN a committee drafting the policy is also considering an amendment that would enforce the same standard against all past offenders.

While the new policies would be mandatory for all U.S. dioceses, draft proposals issued earlier this month did not address how bishops who don't follow the policies would be punished -- a possible sticking point in drafting the final language.

The president of the conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory of the diocese of Belleville, Illinois, opened Thursday's session with a dramatic confession and "profound apology" on behalf of the nation's bishops to victims of clergy sexual abuse and their families.

"We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps," he said.

"Both what we have done, or what we have failed to do, contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and church personnel.

"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.

"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to authorities, because the law did not require this.

"We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church."

He urged all victims of clerical sexual abuse to report the abuse both to their bishop and to civil authorities, and he also asked any priests or bishops responsible for such abuse to step forward and confess.

Addressing his fellow Catholic priests, Gregory also said the bishops "are profoundly sorry that mistakes we have made in dealing with priest abusers have caused some to call into question your own good name and reputation."

After Gregory's address, four people who said they were victims of sexual abuse by priests spoke to the 285 bishops attending the conference, urging them to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for past or future abusers and to hold bishops accountable for enforcing it.

CNN's Jason Carroll says emotions were raw as sex abuse victims spoke at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (June 13)

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Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher relates her story of abuse that occurred at the hands of a future priest (June 13)

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The bishops listened with sober expressions, with one putting his head in his hands, as victims recounted their ordeals and the aftermath.

"He was an adult. He was a priest. I was a minor. He sexually abused me," said Michael Bland, now a victims' counselor.

"I remember him doing things to me that had never been done before. ... I don't know what to call it. He told me it was OK. It was part of growing up. It was normal."

The perpetrator is now a professor at a Catholic-affiliated university, Bland said.

A Minnesota man, Craig Martin, gave an emotional account of his ordeal.

"The child who is abused is put in a frightening and confusing situation. They may have never heard of anything like this happening. Nobody's told them it's right. Nobody's told them it's wrong. Everybody may like and respect the person who is doing these things," he said.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said his abuse at the hands of a priest left him suffering from depression and sexual problems.

"I could describe nights curling up in the fetal position and sobbing hysterically ... and eventually having to get up and change the bed sheets because they were soaked with tears," he said.

Clohessy said victims want to see fundamental change rather than "eloquent apologies" or pledges to do better in the future.

"What causes sexual abuse, that's complicated. How to treat ... these men, that's complicated. What to do when abuse walks in your door, gentlemen, I submit, is not complicated," he said.

Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher said she suffered from years of depression and rage and contemplated suicide after a seminary student, who later became a priest, molested her in Oregon.

"Please heed the words of our Holy Father: There is no place in the priestly ministry for those who harm children," she said, referring to a recent statement by Pope John Paul II.

"I urge you to adopt a policy of zero tolerance for all offenders, whether they have abused one child or adolescent or many, whether past, present or future."

The pope sent a letter to the conference, which Gregory read to his fellow bishops.

"The church in the United States has been constantly in my prayers during the past months -- in particular, that those hurt by such actions may know healing and reconciliation," the pope wrote. "With the Lord's help, you will certainly overcome the present difficulties."

The draft proposals issued earlier in the month called for the removal of any priest from his duties if there are credible allegations of sexual abuse in the future or multiple allegations made in the past.

However, clerics who had offended just once in the past, and had a clean record since, would be allowed to retain their posts.

Victims' groups criticized that exception, and a highly placed official within the conference told CNN the amendment under consideration would provide a "permanent suspension" from the priesthood for past one-time offenders.

Such a suspension, while removing a priest from his duties, would still allow the church to take responsibility for him by sending him to a monastery, for example.

And unlike defrocking a priest, which requires action by the Vatican, bishops could make the decision to suspend priests within their dioceses.




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