- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

DALLAS The nation's Catholic bishops last night decided against a proposal to allow priests to stay in parish work if they had sexually abused a child once in the past.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago emerged from a closed-door meeting with other American church leaders, to say that the provision, contained in a draft proposal by the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, was off the table.

The proposal was widely criticized by lay Catholics and some bishops who want a zero-tolerance policy.

"It gets rid of the provision that I was hoping they would get rid of," he said. "That language is unacceptable. That sounds as if you can do it once and no one would pay attention to you."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is hoping to complete its three-day conclave on sex abuse with a new national policy for handling the sexual misconduct accusations that have tarnished the bishops' credibility.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, said his panel was evaluating two options to present bishops when they vote on the plan today.

They are zero tolerance defrocking any priest guilty of sexual abuse or something that stops just short of that.

Cardinal George said that under the second alternative, an abuser could not serve at a parish, where they might deal with children, though past one-time abusers might be able to remain priests.

In the initial policy draft, released last week, a priest who abused one minor in the past could be reassigned to a church if he underwent counseling, agreed to supervision and publicly disclosed his misconduct.

The bishops got to work after spending the morning and afternoon begging victims' forgiveness, hearing anguished stories by victims, and being scolded and told to "get their house in order" by their conference's president.

In his keynote address, Bishop Wilton Gregory began the meeting by calling the scandals "perhaps the gravest we have faced" and emphasized that the scandals stemmed from the church's own laxity and already had cost the bishops much credibility with lay Catholics.

"The crisis, in truth," he said, "is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership because of our failures in addressing the crime of sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel.

"We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse," said Bishop Gregory, who leads the Belleville Diocese in Illinois. "Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps.

Bishop Gregory once again told victims he was sorry for the pain they suffered and asked forgiveness from the "faithful priests" whose reputations have been marred by the misconduct of a few.

He also asked bishops who were guilty of abuse to turn themselves in to Vatican authorities.

Once the bishops approve a new policy, provisions that affect canon law in America would have to win Vatican approval to bind all U.S. dioceses. Each diocese answers to Rome, not the bishops' conference, and so a policy without Vatican approval would be little more than a gentlemen's agreement.

Most bishops more than 300 were in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel convention center in Dallas remained stoic and some fidgeted through the charged atmosphere, first at Bishop Gregory's admonitions and pleas and later as victims addressed the conference in a rare concession by the bishops to the laity.

Bishop Gregory's remarks, though harsh, seemed to energize many from both within and outside the officialdom.

"I couldn't have been more proud of" Bishop Gregory's speech, said a bishop from California who asked not to be identified. "That opening statement said it all. We were blind, stupid and self-serving. It must stop."

Other factors hundreds of abuse victims converged on the hotel convention center, and more than 750 media representatives from all over the world were interviewing them continually also are expected to influence the bishops.

A nationwide outcry, with polls indicating few Catholics expected the bishops to clean house, seemed to solidify the belief that there should be no "second chances."

Abuse victim Michael Bland urged a zero-tolerance policy by telling the bishops how he joined the priesthood but then left after trying to persuade church leaders to take action against the priest who was molesting him.

"The priesthood lost me but kept the perpetrator," Mr. Bland said.

About 150 people later attended an evening prayer service sponsored by the group Call to Action, which opposes the all-male priesthood and mandatory celibacy. The service started with the song "Healing River." An opening prayer included the line "fill the hearts of your faithful people gathered here and the hearts of our bishops gathered in earnest deliberation."

The group later marched in a silent candlelight parade to the hotel.

Archbishop Flynn said yesterday morning that he and his team were digesting more than 100 pages of amendments to the report and expected "substantial modifications."

Also affecting the meeting was a front-page package of stories in Wednesday's Dallas Morning News that said 111 of the bishops among 178 major U.S. dioceses had protected or ignored charges against sexually abusive priests or church personnel.

The newspaper provided free copies throughout the conference area, and many in attendance were seen reading the story.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the bishop's conference, dismissed the articles the results of a three-month investigation as "a smear campaign."

"I was deeply disappointed that there wasn't the kind of nuanced reporting needed to explain the ways cases had been handled in each diocese," he added. "The explanations were too simplistic, often unfair, and in some cases, inaccurate."

In the Morning News, Monsignor Maniscalco was quoted as saying: "Why should anybody's feet be held to the fire? The bishops made what they thought were prudent decisions at the time. The decisions were made on the best advice available."

Roger Kincannon, who says he was abused by a priest in a small Illinois town when he was 14, called such statements emblematic of abuse victims' difficulties with the bishops.

"That's exactly what we've been dealing with here," said the 37-year-old Chicago salesman. "Nobody wants to take any responsibility."

Mr. Kincannon, who was among the approximately 50 people picketing outside the meeting hotel with a sign reading "Thou Shalt Not Abuse Your Parishioner's Child," said he didn't expect today's vote to matter.

"No guts," he said. "Bishop Gregory speaks from the heart, but he isn't the majority, I am afraid."

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