Pope Benedict XVI Working to Clean up Priesthood

By Rachel Zoll
April 19, 2008

Addressing the clergy sex abuse crisis this week, Pope Benedict XVI said that it was more important to have good priests than many priests.

A top Vatican official now says the Roman Catholic Church is weighing a further change to clean up the clergy: revising church law so predators could be more easily removed.

"It's possible," said Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican office that reviews abuse claims against priests worldwide. "There are some things under consideration that I'm not able to say," Levada told reporters Friday, in a meeting at Time magazine's offices.

It is the latest signal during Benedict's first papal visit to the country that he is intent on purifying the priesthood as he affirms traditional Catholic practices and teaching.

He has acknowledged the scourge of abuse in most of his public appearances in the U.S.

He spoke privately with victims _ in what is believed to be the first time a pope has met with people who had been abused by priests. He also told bishops the problem had sometimes been very "badly handled" _ an indirect but clear papal admonition. Benedict could take up the issue again Saturday in a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral with priests from around the country.

Soon after Benedict was elected in 2005, an evaluation of American seminaries began under Vatican direction in response to the abuse crisis. The review measured how students are instructed on church teaching and also asked about "evidence of homosexuality" in each school.

That same year, the Vatican said in a policy document that men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies cannot be admitted to seminaries.

But far from scolding America's clergy this week, Benedict has offered them support.

He said priests who had done nothing wrong had been unfairly tarred by the crisis. More than 4,000 clergy have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950. Abuse-related costs have surpassed $2 billion in that period, with much of the payouts in just the last six years. But most of the recent claims concern wrondgoing that occurred decades ago.

At the height of the scandal, which erupted in 2002 with the case of one predator in the Archdiocese of Boston, the shame was so intense that some priests took off their clergy collars before going out in public. Benedict compared their suffering to "Christ in his Passion."

However, morale has been improving as the intensity of the crisis has eased.

Seminary rectors say that their students are eager to show through their service to parishioners that the priesthood can still be a noble calling.

Yet, Catholic clergy face other challenges beyond fallout from the abuse problem.

The priesthood has been shrinking for decades. More than 3,200 of the 18,600 U.S. parishes don't have resident priests, according to the Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. More lay people than clergy work full-time in the churches.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created a recruitment campaign called "Fishers of Men," that encourages priests to invite young men to consider entering the priesthood.

Dioceses have been hiring recruiters to travel overseas to find clergy candidates. The number of priests from other countries has grown so steadily that some seminaries are adding English classes, hiring accent reduction tutors and providing courses on American culture.

International recruitment is motivated partly by the exploding demand for Spanish speakers for the Hispanic immigrants filling the pews.

Leading a Mass in Nationals Park in Washington Thursday, Benedict asked the thousands of parishioners who crammed the stadium to "love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do."

On Saturday in New York, Benedict will speak to seminarians at a youth rally. Then on Sunday, the final day of his trip, he will visit ground zero and hold a Mass at Yankee Stadium.


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