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Church observers say pope statement on abuse unusually direct

[AP photo]
Pope John Paul II reads his message to American cardinals gathered in his private library Tuesday at the Vatican. The pope's speech emphatically condemned sexual abuse.

©Associated Press
April 24, 2002


Many U.S. Roman Catholics welcomed Pope John Paul II's statement on sex abuse Tuesday as a long-awaited acknowledgment that the church has mishandled molestation claims and harmed innocent people in the process. Advocates for victims were anxious to hear what solutions the Vatican would support.

The pope called abuse a sin and a crime, and said there was no place in the priesthood for people who hurt children. Many found the text remarkably forthright.

"He's an isolated man who, I think, is isolated from the general public. Now he's not any longer," said Betty Herron, a 72-year-old Catholic from outside Boston, where the scandal broke open in January. It has since spread to dioceses nationwide.

"This is really a very honest statement for an institution that is marked by secrecy," said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian and academic editor of The Paulist Press, based in New Jersey.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was less encouraged. He welcomed the pope's words, but withheld praise until church leaders took some concrete actions.

"The real test of whether or not there will be serious reform will come long after the media spotlight and legal pressure abates," Clohessy said.

The pope gave his speech at the start of an unusual two-day summit with U.S. cardinals and top executives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The pontiff blamed missteps by church leaders on a "generalized lack of knowledge" of abuse and in some cases the advice of clinicians who "led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong." He also reached out to victims of abusive clergy, expressing his "profound sense of solidarity and concern."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, was among those at the meeting, and issued what he called an open letter to American Catholics late Tuesday.

"We, your bishops, believed that we had made considerable progress in dealing with sexual abuse of minors and in creating safe environments for children. As the details of troubling cases from the past emerged, that sense of progress has been all but wiped out," Gregory wrote.

"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."

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, an anti-defamation group based in New York, has been critical of how U.S. church leaders have responded to the crisis. But he applauded the pope Tuesday for labeling sex abuse a "crime" and for noting how victims have suffered.

"The fundamental problem is a lack of discipline," Donohue said. "Pope John Paul II understands what needs to be done."

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the bishops' conference and the Knights of Columbus, said the pope clearly realizes the depth of the crisis consuming the U.S. church.

"I think he's trying to reassure Americans -- both Catholic and non-Catholic -- that he understands perfectly well that this is more than a moral problem for the church to handle in counseling or the confessional," Shaw said. "The pope is making a personal expression of sorrow and regret -- and the church's expression of sorrow and regret -- about as strongly as he can."

Shaw said the pope also was indicating his openness to a tougher approach to errant priests. U.S. bishops for years have been asking the Vatican to change church law and make it easier to oust abusive clergy.

"It's just a reminder of the commitment to that type of life that you've chosen and if you don't follow through on that, then there's no room for you in the priesthood," said Joseph Conley, 68, of Quincy, Mass.

Voice of the Faithful, a Massachusetts-based Catholic lay group formed in response to the crisis, said they wished the pope had addressed the systemic problems that led to the scandal, not just the misdeeds of individual priests. Still, Voice member Svea Fraser saw the pope's statement as a first step toward rebuilding trust in the church.

"For many of us, it has not shaken our faith in God or our religion, it has shaken our faith in some of our leaders, and we look to the Holy Father for guidance and leadership right now," Fraser said.

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