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After Vatican summit, how U.S. dioceses will deal with sex abuse crisis remains unclear

©Associated Press
April 26, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Fresh from their Vatican meeting and with demands rising for a nationwide policy to deal with pedophile priests, the Roman Catholic church's top leaders appear to have varying ideas of what the pope has asked them to do.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was clear about one thing he said must be in the policy on sex-abusing priests.

"It includes zero tolerance," he said after arriving at Lambert Airport in St. Louis on Thursday. But it remained unclear whether Catholic leaders can reach a consensus on such an approach.

U.S. cardinals returned from Rome to Catholics and Americans anxious to hear about their two-day meeting with the pope over the sex abuse crisis.

The meeting followed abuse revelations around the nation that have resulted in the resignation of one bishop and the removal of dozens of priests from active ministry.

Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who has been under public pressure to step down, said before leaving Rome that his resignation "never came up."

"I particularly was grateful for the Holy Father's talk," he said. "Very good spirit. Very frank, very open."

During the meeting, the pope said that the priesthood had no place for "those who would harm the young." That statement has sparked debate among the cardinals over whether he meant to include those who have molested a minor even once.

At least two cardinals, Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, have said they believe that's what the pope meant.

But others, like Cardinals Edward Egan of New York and Francis George of Chicago, say they aren't sure that the pope is calling for a zero-tolerance policy.

At the meeting, the cardinals said they would recommend a process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." Other cases would be left up to local bishops.

Groups that advocate for abuse victims expressed frustration that the cardinals stopped short of adopting a "one strike, you're out" policy.

"It's terribly disappointing," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which claims more than 3,500 members.

On Thursday, a proposed zero-tolerance policy picked up the support of a key archbishop who is in charge of a committee on sex abuse.

"A child must never be put in harm's way," said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was appointed April 19 as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sex Abuse of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In St. Louis, Gregory, head of the diocese of Belleville, Ill., said he hopes that it will become national policy for bishops to immediately report allegations of child abuse to law enforcement authorities.

"We're dealing with a crime," Gregory said. "We're dealing with human depravity, we're dealing with a sin, we're dealing with human psychosis, but first of all we are dealing with a crime."

McCarrick said Thursday that "a much clearer and more full statement" on dealing with sex abuse will be made in June at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas.

Speaking later Thursday at a private Catholic university, he said the church must act cautiously.

"We have to make sure that we are not acting unjustly to anybody, including a priest about whom something might have been alleged," he said, addressing an audience of about 250 at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.

In Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua returned home Thursday to news that District Attorney Lynne Abraham was convening a grand jury to investigate allegations of priest abuse and possible cover-ups.

"As far as I know, at the present moment there is no priest in any parish or any ministry whatsoever who has been accused of misconduct with a minor," Bevilacqua said at a news conference.

Today, Bevilacqua was set to host seven other American cardinals at a previously scheduled benefit dinner.

In other developments Thursday:

Massachusetts' Senate gave final approval to a bill requiring clergy to report past incidents of child sex abuse to state officials within 30 days or face a $1,000 fine. The bill must still be signed by acting Gov. Jane Swift.

In Ohio, the Columbus diocese said it relieved a priest of his pastoral duties in 1999 after he admitted a four-year relationship with a minor. Monsignor Joseph N. Fete has been appointed to an administrative position and will not have any responsibilities involving children.

In Las Vegas, the Rev. Mark Roberts denied felony and misdemeanor charges that he fondled, hit and photographed teen-agers he counseled at St. Peter the Apostle Church. Roberts called the allegations "atrociously scurrilous and blasphemous."

Officials in the Archdiocese of Detroit agreed to voluntarily report to prosecutors alleged sexual abuse or misconduct by priests dating back 15 years.

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