Pope Calls for Fair Treatment of Priests Accused of Sex Abuse

By Nicole Winfield
Vatican City
February 6, 2004

Pope John Paul II urged church officials Friday to be fair when judging priests accused of sex abuse, but said the "predominant" need was to protect the faithful.

He also called for seminaries and church authorities to do a better job of training priests to be celibate.

The pope's comments came in a speech to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog which also judges cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

John Paul told the prelates there has been a "noteworthy increase" in their caseloads since the abuse crisis erupted in the United States in January 2002. Dozens of reports emerged of abusive priests who had been moved from parish to parish rather than being punished.

The U.S. Catholic Church has since adopted stricter norms to deal with such cases, and more than 325 of the United States' 46,000 clergy have either resigned or been barred from church work.

Victims groups, however, have accused the church hierarchy of favoring the protection of priests over their victims, criticizing in particular the secret Vatican tribunals where accused priests are judged.

But John Paul said current church law, if applied fairly, guarantees the accused's right to a proper defense, "as well as the needs of the common good."

Once there is evidence of a crime, church authorities must take into account "the predominant need to protect the people of God," he said.

In response to the pope's comments, David Clohessy, the national director of the victims' group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the implication that priests weren't already being treated fairly "should be viewed with great skepticism."

"The sad reality is that accused priests in our view are still afforded excessive deference, given every conceivable benefit of the doubt, and sadly, some remain in active parish ministry today," he said in a telephone interview.

In his speech, the pope emphasized the need to better train priests "to embrace with joy and generosity the style of humble, modest and chaste life, which is the practical foundation of ecclesiastical celibacy."

John Paul has spoken out frequently about the need for priests to be celibate, particularly in the wake of the sex crisis. He has rejected calls for flexibility in the requirement.


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