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U.S. cardinals stop short of 'zero tolerance'

press conference
Cardinals speak to reporters in Rome.  

VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals summoned here by Pope John Paul II condemned Wednesday the sexual abuse of minors by priests, but they stopped short of proposing a "zero tolerance" policy toward priest-molesters.

In a communique issued after the two-day meeting called to address the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in America, the cardinals said they would instead recommend a national policy for the dismissal of a priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

"There is a growing consensus that it is too great a risk to assign a priest who has abused a child to another ministry. That's clear," Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the news conference that ended the meeting.

But the communique made a distinction between a priest who is a serial sexual offender and one who is a first-time offender, and Gregory said the issue would be a priority in June at the bishops' general meeting in Dallas, Texas.

Some Catholic leaders believe priests who molest children should immediately be thrown out of the ministry. Others have talked of allowing for rehabilitation.

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"If you're looking to the future, I would say it's pretty clear that the Holy Father is calling for zero tolerance," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington.

In remarks Tuesday, the pope said it was imperative that people know "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Gregory said the church leaders recognized that "children and young people have been abused by some priests in our country and this abuse sometimes was not ended early enough or decisively enough due to action or inaction by some bishops."

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, a Vatican official, said the cardinals discussed what form atonement should take. And while he said an extreme method of atonement would be resignation, he said other forms of atonement, such as penance and prayer, could be even more "personally demanding."

Talk of rehabilitation

According to the cardinals' communique, "the sexual abuse of minors is rightly considered a crime by society and is an appalling sin in the eyes of God, above all when it is perpetrated by priests and religious whose vocation is to help persons to lead holy lives before God and men."

The communique continued, "there is a need to convey to the victims and their families a profound sense of solidarity, and to provide appropriate assistance in recovering faith and receiving pastoral care."

The cardinals proposed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommend a process for the dismissal of a priest guilty of the "serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

However, the proposal said that in cases where a priest is not considered notorious and where there may be a single victim, the local bishop would decide whether the priest is a threat to children and should be dismissed.

Gregory noted that "even an expedited process contains the right to appeal. But what we hope to put together is a procedure that is clear, specific and airtight." Currently, bishops of each diocese set their own policies.

McCarrick described his own five-part vision for a "zero tolerance" policy and listed the steps he hopes will be considered in Dallas:

  • Reach out to the victim and their family to offer apologies, psychological help and pastoral counseling.
  • Immediately remove the priest from his ministry.
  • Notify civil authorities.
  • Send the person to a therapeutic institution for evaluation.
  • Turn the case over to a diocesan review board of mostly lay people (parents, doctors, lawyers, etc.) and let it make a recommendation to the bishop.
  • Day of prayer and penance

    Although he had not been expected to meet with the U.S. clergymen Wednesday, the pope held a private working lunch with the bishops and cardinals to offer further guidance. Vatican officials also attended the session.

    In the cardinals' report, they recommended that seminaries be more vigilant in teaching moral Catholic doctrines.

    Calling the sexual abuse of children "deplorable behavior," the church leaders said church pastors must place a greater emphasis on the moral teachings of the church.

    They urged the bishops' group to ask all Roman Catholics to join them in a national day of prayer and penance in reparation for the offenses committed and the reconciliation of victims.

    In a letter to Roman Catholics signed by Gregory, the church leaders vowed that "we stand ready to take the steps needed to strengthen our past resolve and to keep children and young people safe for the future and to help heal those so tragically hurt by this abuse."

    Notably absent at the news conference was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

    Law, who has rejected calls for his resignation over his failure to protect children from sexually abusive priests, apologized to his parishioners this month for reacting too slowly to the problems.

    "I'm not certain what the situation is with Cardinal Law," Gregory said, replying to a question about Law's absence. Asked if Law was avoiding the media, Gregory said, "I do not believe so, but I could not tell you why he is not here."

    Law was one of several cardinals who did not attend the news conference because the Vatican meeting took longer than planned and they had other commitments, Gregory said.


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