Pope John Paul II Calls Sex Abuse in the Clergy 'A Crime'
Pontiff: Sexual Abuse 'An Appalling Sin in the Eyes of God'

Chicago Sun-Times
April 24, 2002

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II declared Tuesday there is no place for child molesters in the Roman Catholic clergy, and a consensus appeared to be emerging among the American cardinals meeting here in favor of a zero-tolerance policy for priests who abuse.

In a prepared "discourse" the pope read to the American cardinals, he used his strongest language to date to condemn the abuse that has fueled the scandal rocking the church in the United States.

"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," the pope said, describing himself as "deeply grieved by the fact that priests ... have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young."

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is, by every standard, wrong and rightly considered a crime by society," the pontiff said. "It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."

It was zero tolerance that consumed much of the day's discussions.

"I suspect ... that's the way we're going to go," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said during a break in the first of two all-day meetings of U.S. cardinals and Vatican leaders called by the pope in response to the current clergy sex-abuse scandal in the United States.

"If we go toward a national policy of zero tolerance, where if there's just one incident in the past, and even if for 10, 12, 15 years there's been nothing further, zero tolerance means zero tolerance."

Whether such a policy would be retroactive is still being discussed, George said. That is: Would it apply to priests who already have been disciplined by the church for abuse but who are still serving as priests?

While the extraordinary meetings between the 12 American prelates and their Vatican bosses are going on behind closed doors at the papal palace in Vatican City, several other cardinals took time out to tell reporters they would favor what they described as a "one strike and you're out" policy for priests who sexually abuse minors.

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said the pope made it clear he is looking to the American prelates to adopt a tough, zero-tolerance policy, and Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida told CNN, "We need to root out the priest or other people who would take advantage of our young people."

In the pope's address, he also emphasized the church's tradition of forgiveness.

"We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change," he said.

George, who, with Bishop Wilton Gregory of downstate Belleville — president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a one-time Chicago priest — was chosen to represent the American cardinals at a news conference Tuesday, said the question of whether a priest who is guilty of molesting a child should ever be reassigned remains "a thorny issue."

A zero-tolerance policy might be the safe way to go, but it raises difficult ethical questions, George said.

"There is a difference between a moral monster like (defrocked Boston priest John) Geoghan, who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion, and to someone who, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection," George said.

"That is still a crime in every instance, and so the civil law doesn't distinguish. In terms of the culpability and in terms of the possibility for a reform of one's life, they are two very different sets of circumstances."

Cardinal Law issue

On another matter that has shadowed the Vatican gathering, George said there was no talk among the cardinals Tuesday of rumored efforts by some of the American prelates to pressure John Paul to force Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law to resign.

"No one has gone to the Holy Father and spoken to Cardinal Law's resignation," the spiritual leader of Chicago Catholics said. "I suspect it's not even on the table and won't be."

But during a preliminary meeting of the cardinals Monday, Law acknowledged that "if he had not made some terrible mistakes, we probably would not be here," George said.

The cardinals today are expected to have what Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the U.S. bishops, described as "a cordial lunch" with the pope before issuing a final statement on the results of their meetings. They are expected to follow up on the Vatican gathering by voting on a policy to deal with sexually abusive priests when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Dallas in June.


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