|Pope calls sex abuse
Pontiff says cases mishandled, voices solidarity with victims
By Charles M. Sennott
April 24, 2002
VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, in opening remarks to American Catholic leaders he summoned to confront the priest sexual abuse crisis, said yesterday there was ''no place in the priesthood ... for those who would harm the young.''
John Paul added that sexual abuse by the clergy was not only an ''appalling sin'' but a crime, and he pointedly noted that ''many are offended at the way in which church leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter.''
He said bishops had in the past acted on the advice of specialists and made ''decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong.'' US church leaders ''are now working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated,'' he said.
The statement was by far the pope's strongest and most direct response to a scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in Boston and across the country.
The pope spoke at the opening of an extraordinary two-day meeting in which 12 American cardinals and two prominent bishops met with some of the highest officials in the Vatican to draft binding and unified standards on how the Catholic Church in the United States will investigate allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
There was no mention in the opening session of whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law would resign for mistakes he admits he made in allowing two priests who had numerous complaints of abuse against them to continue serving in parishes.
The pope's statement was seen by Vatican observers as an important sign that the frail, 81-year-old pontiff was determined to correct a widespread feeling among America's 65 million Catholics that he had failed to understand the severity of the crisis.
The words also seemed intended to correct an impression that the Holy See had not gone far enough in expressing sympathy for the victims of sexual abuse by priests, nor in condemning decisions by church officials who often moved offenders from one parish to the next, rather than defrock them.
The pope's only previous public reference to the crisis was made on Holy Thursday, when he said a ''dark shadow of suspicion'' had been cast over priests ''by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination.''
In contrast to that statement, which did not mention the pain and anger felt by victims, the pope said yesterday: ''To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern.''
But he also asked that the scandals, estimated to involve not more than 1 percent of all priests, be seen in the context of the good works of the church and its priests on behalf of the poor and in schools and universities. ''A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains,'' he said.
The pope said he hoped the crisis would lead to ''a purification of the entire Catholic community.''
''So much pain, so much sorrow, must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church,'' John Paul said.
The pope read his roughly two-page statement in English, while sitting in a chair in his private library in the papal residence. He summoned the American cardinals there from the conference room in the frescoed Sala Bologna in the Apostolic Palace where their meeting was being held.
The meeting, which will conclude today, was led by the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and three top prelates who oversee the Vatican's doctrinal matters. Added to that list yesterday were other senior Vatican officials responsible for areas such as seminaries, religious orders, and canon law.
The increased participation of leaders in the two-day meeting was seen as a sign of the gravity and importance the Vatican is giving to the problem. The Vatican seemed eager to ensure that the guidelines being developed by the American cardinals, to be presented to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in June in Dallas, are in line with Catholic doctrine.
Their participation also suggested that wider issues, including how celibacy is taught in seminaries, are being debated in the meeting.
One of the issues on the table is whether some of the abuse cases - many of which involve not children but young teenagers and seminarians - have any link to homosexuality in the priesthood. Here the clerics seem to be delving into complex psychological terrain. Psychologists say that there is no link between homosexuality and pedophilia and that a homosexual is no more likely to be a pedophile than a heterosexual.
The most horrific of the cases involve allegations of pedophilia, which is abuse of a prepubescent child. But the greater number of cases revolve around allegations of ephebophilia, which is the abuse of a postpubescent teenager.
The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, recently stated in connection with the scandals in the United States that homosexuals should be excluded from the priesthood.
Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit told reporters yesterday that behavioral scientists think ''it's not truly a pedophilia-type problem but a homosexual-type problem,'' and that bishops need to ''cope with and address'' the extent of a homosexual presence in Catholic seminaries.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Bellville, Ill., president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and a participant in the meeting, said, ''It is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.''
The church officially does not forbid homosexually oriented priests, but it requires that all priests maintain celibacy.
Speaking in order of seniority, Cardinal Law was first among the cardinals to address the gathering. He presented his proposed plan for establishing the unified guidelines, which will be formally introduced and possibly mandated for the 194 dioceses in America at the June meeting of the Conference of Bishops. Each cardinal spoke for approximately 15 minutes.
One critical issue is how the guidelines will deal with the reporting of allegations to law enforcement authorities without violating the relationship of trust between bishops and their priests. While in the past the church has been accused of sheltering priests accused of abuse, the pope's remarks appeared to indicate that the church would put up no impediment to cooperation with authorities investigating crimes.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles told reporters that the Americans planned to work out a list of formal proposals for the church in the United States that would be announced at the end of the meeting.
One cardinal proposed creating a nationwide panel of prominent Catholic laymen and women to ''make sure we have the best possible standards,'' Mahony said.
The pope used ''the strongest language I've seen about what we call at home `zero tolerance''' for abusive priests, Mahony said. The pope ''made it very clear that there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who abuses minors,'' he told the Associated Press.
But Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said that the pope's position was open to interpretation. He pointed out that the pope spoke of the possibility of ''Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God.''
Maida said that while in the past sexual abuse was seen as a sin, ''today we view it as a crime.'' Reports of abuse in the Archdiocese of Detroit were taken to civil authorities for investigation, he said. ''That's the way to handle it.
''We need to root out the priest or other people who would take advantage of our young people,'' Maida told reporters.
But, George cautioned, ''there is a difference between a moral monster like [the Rev. John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion, and the someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages with a 16- or 17-year-old young woman who returns his affection. That is still a crime ... so the civil law does not distinguish. But in terms of the possibility of reform of one's life, there are two very different sets of circumstances.''
John Allen, who covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter, said the pope's statement and the meeting itself need to be seen as symbolic messages.
''The decision to do this meeting in such a dramatic ... high-profile way was to say that they are on the job, to make the point, `We get it,''' Allen said.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.