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