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Vatican aims for sex case reforms

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2002

The Vatican's unprecedented summons of U.S. cardinals to a meeting on sex abuse has some insiders hoping for big changes in church policies, including the standardization of rules dictating how American bishops respond to misconduct claims.

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said he will encourage church leaders at the meeting to support that approach. Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas, who is on a panel overseeing U.S. bishops' response to the scandal, said the idea will likely be on the agenda.

Speeding up the removal of errant priests will also be discussed at next week's gathering, Galante said.

Observers cautioned against high expectations for the assembly. The church is known for its deliberate style, and the gathering next Tuesday and Wednesday should be seen as one step in a long struggle to restore trust in the church, they said.

Still, the Vatican has never before moved so swiftly to convene a meeting of cardinals. Pope John Paul II called all American archbishops to Rome in 1989 to discuss divorce among Catholics and other issues, but that gathering was planned long in advance.

'It seems to indicate that there was some concern not just to protect the church from scandal, but for the bishops to be true pastors and shepherds of their flock,' said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian and academic editor of the Paulist Press.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus, believes the pope organized the meeting as a show of solidarity with the American church and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Law's archdiocese has been at the center of the raging scandal.

Law said Tuesday that he had spent the last few days in Rome, where he met with the pope and other Vatican officials. In a statement, he said he raised the possibility of resigning.

'As a result of my stay in Rome, I return home encouraged in my efforts to provide the strongest possible leadership in ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that no child is ever abused again by a priest of this Archdiocese,' he said.

The cardinal acknowledged in January that he failed to remove a pedophile priest now accused of molesting more than 130 people. He has stayed in office despite mounting pressure to step down.

'I think the pope wants it to be known that he backs Cardinal Law and he wants it also to be known that the cardinal's colleagues in the American hierarchy do as well,' Shaw said.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops conference, said Vatican officials would be listening to the cardinals' ideas next week, not issuing orders.

Maniscalco and Galante, the coadjutor of Dallas, said the U.S. delegation hopes to persuade the Holy See to change church law and allow them to remove pedophiles from the priesthood without cumbersome appeals to Rome. Now, bishops can only temporarily suspend priests.

The Rome summit will also help the cardinals develop a blueprint for a June meeting of U.S. bishops, who will vote on a response to the crisis.

In 1992, the conference developed guidelines on responding to abuse claims, but each diocese is autonomous and compliance is voluntary. The bishops need Vatican approval to implement a binding national policy.

'They really need an indication from the Vatican as to whether any of the proposals would get a green light,' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America. 'It would be a disaster if they proposed something in June and the Vatican rejected it.'

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington went to Rome last week to discuss the abuse crisis with the pope. McCarrick said the pontiff expressed concern for the victims, church members and the future of the priesthood. Keeler also met last week with the pope, as did Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the bishops' conference, who will attend next week's gathering.

Some critics have said the pope and the Vatican have been slow to respond to a scandal with global implications. McCarrick said he hopes the U.S. delegation can 'assure the Holy Father we are striving for holiness.'

In a related development Tuesday, the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Franziskus Eisenbach, an auxiliary bishop in Mainz, Germany, who had been accused of sexually abusing and injuring a woman during an exorcism. Prosecutors said a year ago there wasn't enough evidence to pursue the case.

The Vatican said it had urged Eisenbach to step down 'for the good of the church,' but added that his resignation was not an admission of guilt.

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