Cardinals Promise Tough Policy on Abuse; at Vatican Summit, Dissent, Homosexuality in Priesthood Seen as Roots of Crisis. (Church in Crisis)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Cardinals Promise Tough Policy on Abuse; at Vatican Summit, Dissent, Homosexuality in Priesthood Seen as Roots of Crisis. (Church in Crisis)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


At the close of a hastily organized, dramatic summit on the sex abuse crisis, American cardinals and virtually the entire Vatican brain trust seem to have decided on a "get tough" approach. The idea applies not only to abuser priests, but to homosexuality in the priesthood and doctrinal dissent in the church.

The U.S. bishops also publicly acknowledged, for the first time since the crisis broke, their failure to act as good managers. In a brief letter to American priests, the bishops wrote: "We regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal."

The April 23 and 24 summit produced two documents: a brief letter from the American bishops to U.S. priests, and a "final communique" outlining areas of agreement.

All 13 American cardinals took part, along with Bishops Wilton Gregory and Richard Skylstad, the president and vice-president of the American bishops' conference. Also in the room was Msgr. William Fay, the executive secretary for the American bishops.

On the Vatican side, eight top officials took part, including all the heavy-hitters: Cardinals Angelo Sodano, secretary of state; Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office; Giovannia Battisat Re, who runs the office for bishops; and Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the Vatican's top official for clergy.

The pope convened the opening meeting, but did not directly participate in the working sessions.

In the end, the summit did not result in a comprehensive new approach to the sex abuse issue. It did, however, offer some "big picture" guidance for the American bishops ahead of their June meeting in Dallas, where they are expected to wrestle significantly with the sex abuse issue.

Most important, the discussions may have forestalled the possibility that Rome might veto whatever the Americans adopt in June, although the summit's final document included a pledge from the American bishops to submit their new policies to Rome for formal approval.

Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick described the consensus in five points:

* Take care of victims first, offering whatever assistance is required.

* A priest credibly accused of abuse should be immediately removed from ministry.

* Civil authorities should be informed.

* The priest should be sent to a therapist for treatment.

* Each diocese should have a review board, composed mostly of laypeople such as physicians and the victims of sexual abuse or their parents, to participate in the handling of these cases.

John Paul II set the "get tough" tone in an opening address. "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," he said.

The pope also said that society rightly considers sexual abuse a crime, a signal that the Vatican is moving away from seeing clergy sex abuse largely as a spiritual problem to be handled inside the church.

McCarrick told reporters April 24 that the pope's comments struck him as a clear papal endorsement of a "zero tolerance" policy.

At the same time, however, the pope also urged the bishops not to forget "the power of Christian conversion," seeming to leave open the door to a more flexible policy with offender priests.

It was an ambiguity that ran through the discussions.

In the end, the bishops left Rome still divided on the question of whether a "zero tolerance" policy should apply to all cases, present and past, and whether it should apply to all forms of sexual abuse, or be restricted to the most heinous acts of pedophilia.

Skylstad told NCR in an April 24 interview that the summit's strong preference was for a "one strike and you're out approach," but the details will have to be spelled out when the U.S. bishops meet in Dallas in June.

The summit's concluding document also called for a speedier process to defrock a "notorious" priest, meaning a serial pedophile -- someone who abuses a number of young children -- and for a "special process" for priests who are judged by a bishop to present a real threat to young people. …

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