Catholics Raise Doubts about Vatican Moves ; Some US Groups Want Stronger Zero-Tolerance Policy and More Accountability

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After two extraordinary days of high-profile attention on Vatican City and the scandal shaking the Roman Catholic Church, US prelates now turn to the task of firming up a national set of standards on clergy sexual abuse that will convince American Catholics their concerns are being addressed.

The cardinals issued proposals at the close of the Rome meeting with the pope that aim to make it easier to remove priests who abuse minors. But they failed to agree on specifics raised during their sessions, such as a zero-tolerance policy for removing abusers or a national panel of lay advisers who would monitor church performance.

And despite remarkably frank interviews over the two days that seemed to show the cardinals' sensitivity to Catholics' concerns, the final communique included no mention of greater lay involvement or any measures of accountability for the hierarchy. They also issued a special letter to priests, but there was no apology to victims of abuse.

A special committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will be responsible for turning the proposals into specific standards that all US bishops can approve at a June meeting in Dallas.

"It was a high-stakes meeting - their backs were to the wall," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "The US cardinals and Rome were under a microscope to respond adequately and firmly."

No strong national policy

While the summit gave convincing evidence the church was focusing on the problem of protecting children, it fell far short of a uniform policy with the pope's imprimatur. "The document is a skeletal outline. There is much, much more work to be done," admitted Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholics Bishops.

The cardinals said they will propose a special process to speed dismissal of a priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors," and another process for those priests who are not "notorious" but still may pose a further threat.

The idea that some priests involved in abuse might still be returned to active religious life is distressing to many victims and their supporters.

"We weren't terribly optimistic to start with, but we're disappointed," says David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. "Yesterday the pope said there is no place in ministry for an abuser, but today the cardinals seemed to be saying, well, maybe sometimes, some cases. This backtracking so quickly is disturbing."

The cardinals also seem to make a distinction between pedophiles and those who abuse older minors. Some involved in treatment strongly disagree. "That specific distinction is deplorable," says Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee, Wisc. "A felony is a felony, whether it's a child or a minor."

He acknowledges that some individual priests fall into gray areas. "But these are not engineers or plumbers or accountants - they're guardians, in a position of public trust. …