Pope condemns priest sex scandal He told U.S. cardinals in Rome that the abuse of the young was "a crime ... and an appalling sin." For the clerics, thorny questions remain.

Posted: April 24, 2002

ROME — Using his strongest language to date, Pope John Paul II yesterday condemned sex abuse of children by priests, declaring that "there is no place in the priesthood . . . for those who would harm the young."

"Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church is viewed with distrust," he told 12 U.S. cardinals summoned to the Vatican to explain why so many sex-abuse scandals had rocked American dioceses in recent decades, especially this year.

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong . . . a crime . . . and an appalling sin," he declared in English during a morning session with the cardinals in his personal library.

By using the word crime, the Pope seemed to eliminate any doubt about where the papacy stood on referring child-molestation cases involving priests to secular authorities.

Afterward, the American cardinals - whose number included the heads of eight archdioceses - met in a frescoed conference room with the heads of a dozen major Vatican departments. John Paul, who is in poor health, did not attend that meeting.

There, each was called on to explain the history and current state of sex-abuse problems in his archdiocese - beginning with Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who has been broadly condemned for protecting and reassigning two priests who sexually abused teenage boys for decades.

Cardinal Law - who spoke first because he is the senior American cardinal in years of service - reportedly apologized to his colleagues here Monday night, saying that his mishandling of those abuse cases had provoked the national outrage that compelled this week's extraordinary session at the Vatican.

But if some American cardinals still want Cardinal Law's resignation, as was widely reported yesterday, there was little evidence for it in their remarks to the news media yesterday.

"Nothing about Cardinal Law's resignation came up," Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a midday news conference. The news conference was held at a specially built media center at the Pontifical College of North America, on a hill overlooking St. Peter's Square.

Bishop Gregory said Vatican leaders and the American cardinals also discussed imposing rules that every American diocese must abide by when it learns that one of its clergy or members of religious orders who are not priests sexually abused a minor.

He was joined at the news conference by Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago.

But neither prelate could say if he knew for sure how to implement the Pope's "no place in the priesthood" remark as a matter of policy.

Asked if it meant instant dismissal on discovery for an abuse that happened decades ago, Bishop Wilton shrugged and called it a "thorny issue."

"It isn't clear to me, either," said Cardinal George, who noted that John Paul had also spoken yesterday of "the power of conversion" and had urged the cardinals to consider the human capacity to "turn away from sin" as they draft a uniform code of response to clergy sex abuse.

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, said in an interview yesterday afternoon that he thought the Pope's language leaned toward favoring dismissal, "but I don't know if it means one strike and you're out."

He said he believed John Paul's language about the power of conversion from sin should not be interpreted as favoring leniency toward sex abusers, but rather as the Pope's "calling everyone - laity, priests and bishops - to greater holiness."

Cardinal Bevilacqua said he still did not know if this two-day conference at the Vatican, which ends today, would produce a publishable response policy on sex abuse before the cardinals head home. "I don't know how specific our findings will be," he said.

Some observers had predicted that to reassure the Catholic laity and American public of their resolve to deal decisively with clergy sex abuse, the cardinals would produce at least the outline of a binding policy here, for adoption in June by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in Dallas. The cardinals worked until 10 p.m. on a final communique for the meeting that reportedly seeks to reflect that outline.

Bishop Gregory yesterday upheld the need for a uniform sex-abuse policy incumbent on every bishop. He noted that while the bishops' conference had adopted a recommended response policy in 1993, not every diocese accepted it, and even some that adopted it in principle enforced it inconsistently.

"So we are fully aware that the focus is on the credibility of bishops and their leadership," he said.

Later in the news conference, Cardinal George said the cardinals had shown little inclination to jettison the long-standing Roman Catholic tradition of celibate clergy in favor of married priests, and said they discussed instead "how can we strengthen the place of celibacy?"

Both men said they believed the cardinals were concerned about the perception that today's priesthood was "dominated by homosexuals," which may discourage some heterosexuals from wanting to join.

But they said most American cardinals seemed disinclined to ban all homosexual men from entering the priesthood, and instead favored ordaining men who, regardless of sexual orientation, "can see themselves married to the church."

Later, Bishop Gregory said he believed the current uproar over scandals that have embarrassed so many priests and bishops may prove healthy if "they make bishops more responsible."

And he defended the role of the media in exposing abuses, saying their reporting "could be a moment of grace if victims can come forward."

Contact David O'Reilly at 215-854-2405 or foreign@phillynews.com.

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