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Pope says bishops' decisions 'wrong'

VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II has acknowledged mistakes in the handling of the U.S. priest sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic leader also told members of America's Roman Catholic hierarchy and other top officials gathered at the Vatican that the church itself would emerge from the "present crisis" more firmly rooted in faith.

The pope's comments came on the first day of formal talks at a Rome summit called to lay the groundwork for policies on how to deal with child sexual abuse allegations against priests.

"It is true that a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong," the pope said. "You are now working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that these criteria are not repeated."

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God."
— Pope John Paul II

Catholics should "be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of their Catholic community," the pope said, "a purification that is urgently needed if the church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force."

The discussions are taking place at the Apostolic Palace, the pope's elaborate office and home within the Vatican complex. Twelve of the 13 U.S. cardinals, including all eight of the archbishops who head major U.S. archdioceses, are at the Vatican, as are two top officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The two days of discussions will lay the groundwork for the June meeting in Dallas of the entire assembly of U.S. bishops, which is expected to draft policies on how to deal with child sexual abuse allegations against priests.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Tuesday's morning session with the pope had been "very cordial."

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"Obviously, the question of the credibility of bishops is a real concern," he said. "Those bishops who have made judgments that have proven to be in error, in fact tragic, are looking for ways to make sure they handle all future cases appropriately and in whatever ways they can to rectify the mistakes and the errors in judgment from the past that they may have been guilty of."

Gregory blamed part of the problem on gay priests and a perceived proliferation of gay men in seminaries.

"It is an ongoing struggle," he said.

"It is most importantly a struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men," Gregory said. "Not only is it not dominated by homosexual men, but to make sure that candidates that we receive are healthy in every possible way -- psychologically, emotionally, spiritually."

Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, however, presented the issue of homosexuality in the priesthood in a different light.

"The important thing in seminary formation is to ask whether or not a candidate is capable of marriage and family," he said, "because an ordained priest is a married man. He's a committed man, the bride of Christ. The difficulty in formation ... is whether a man can see himself as married and bringing forth new life, which is what a priest is supposed to be."

Regarding the issue of celibacy, George said the discussion centered on strengthening the rule that requires priests to be celibate. He said there was a difference between "a moral monster like (defrocked priest John) Geoghan" -- who was convicted in January of molesting an 11-year-old boy a decade ago -- and someone who has consensual sex with a 17-year-old girl while "under the influence of alcohol." Both are crimes, he said, but Geoghan's case is unquestionably more abhorrent.

George said that calls for the resignation of the Boston archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law -- who has been under pressure to resign amid charges that he didn't do enough to protect children from known pedophile priests -- did not come up.

"Last night in the preliminary meeting ... he said that if he had not made some terrible mistakes we would not be here," George said. "He apologized for that. He did not speak about a possible resignation and nobody asked him about that."

Returning last week from a visit to the Vatican, where he talked with the pope about the crisis and the issue of his resignation was discussed, Law reiterated his intention to stay at the helm of the Boston archdiocese, which he has led since 1984.

In a dramatic appearance before the faithful Sunday in Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral before leaving for the Vatican for this week's meetings, Law said he wished he could "turn the clock back and undo the harm, the hurt" caused by decisions he and other church leaders made in handling abuse allegations.

"Regrettably, I and many others have been late to recognize the inadequacy of past policies, the dimensions of the crisis and the changes required to restore a sense of trust," he said. "The repeated public calls for my resignation are a clear signal that many feel that my leadership efforts in this area have been inadequate."


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