Looking for Clear Plan of Action
Vatican Meeting: Church to Address Sexual Abuse Scandal
April 23, 2002
VATICAN CITY — Declaring that apologies aren't enough, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Monday he expects a clear plan of action to come from the extraordinary meeting that begins this morning between Vatican officials and a dozen American cardinals about the child sexual abuse scandal facing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
"We are past the point for mea culpas," said Wilton Gregory, who is the bishop of downstate Belleville. "I think our people know we are sorry. I think what our people want to know is: What are you going to do about it?"
His comments came on the eve of the two-day meeting behind closed doors at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Pope John Paul II is expected to be there for at least part of today's scheduled eight-hour session.
Gregory's meeting with the pope earlier this month set the stage for the unprecedented call to Rome of Cardinal Francis George and the rest of the U.S. cardinals.
Gregory, a one-time Chicago priest, said Monday he expects this week's gathering will lay groundwork for sweeping changes in how the church handles allegations of clergy sexual abuse, steps to be approved when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in June.
"This meeting has a very clear purpose: We are here to find out what we can do, in consort with the Holy See, to make for a safe environment for children," Gregory said, adding that issues such as celibacy, the ordination of women and homosexuality are not likely to be part of the discussions, despite some church leaders' calls to include them.
The American prelates have to figure out a way to create and enforce a policy regarding priests who abuse that can be applied across every jurisdiction in the United States, Gregory said, and that policy has to be followed in states where the law requires the church to report allegations of abuse and those, like Illinois, where it does not.
"A common set of standards would have to say we are all bound to act in this fashion," he said. "It's one thing to have a very fine policy and all the I's dotted and all the T's crossed, but how can we make certain that a very effective policy is very effectively followed in every local jurisdiction?"
According to Gregory, a key point of the talks will be coming up with a uniform policy on how to deal with priests accused of having improper sexual conduct with minors.
"We bishops clearly need to discuss among ourselves and with our people the question of any ministerial assignment where a priest with even the most limited abusive behavior in his past, who has successfully completed treatment and who is receiving ongoing care and monitoring," Gregory said.
The cardinals also have to find ways, he said, to improve pastoral outreach "to those who have suffered so terribly by having their youthful innocence violated."
The bishop suggested several possibilities for ensuring the enforcement of a national policy for the American church, including the creation of a monitoring board including both clergy and lay members.
Matter of trust
But whether American Catholics will trust the church to enforce its own policy is another matter, he said.
"I think the bishops are very aware that whatever we do has to be able to stand the test of public scrutiny," Gregory said. "That's part of the heart of what we're dealing with, to make sure that our people know that we have a clear grasp of the severity of the situation, understand what we are proposing and have a way of being assured that policies are implemented across the board."
Even before the formal talks began, the Los Angeles Times quoted an unidentified cardinal as saying several of the U.S. cardinals would push the Vatican to ask Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to step aside in the wake of revelations of misconduct on the part of priests in Boston and the archdiocese's failure to adequately deal with them.
Gregory said he is "not one of those bishops" said to be ganging up against Law.
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