- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday brushed aside criticism from victims' groups that the bishops' new policy on priestly sexual misconduct is not tough enough.
Southern Illinois Bishop Wilton Gregory insisted on NBC's "Meet the Press" that clerical offenders will no longer be in a position to harm youngsters.
"None of them will have a public office," Bishop Gregory said. "None of them will be able to present themselves as priests They are no longer allowed to identify themselves as a Catholic priest. They are like lawyers who have no license. They have been disbarred. They are like doctors who lost their ability to practice."
Any priest who has abused a youngster "will leave the parish, take off the collar, not be permitted to celebrate the Eucharist publicly [and] be taken out of the context in which he could harm another child," Bishop Gregory added.
Bishop Gregory said Vatican officials, however, have already questioned whether the plan to remove abusive priests from church work may be too much. He said they don't understand the U.S. legal system and think church penance is enough.
"It is troubling, but it is not surprising," he said. "It's not surprising that people who do not live in the United States, under a British common law set of legal standards, that they don't understand all of the realities that we, as Americans, live with and I'm not surprised that they want to remind us about reconciliation, conversion."
Still, Bishop Gregory said he is "as confident as I can be at this time" that the Vatican will approve the policy, although it could take months for Rome to take the actions required to make the policy binding church law in the United States.
"We've talked about it. They've seen the draft document. They know the seriousness of the matter," Bishop Gregory said.
"They have expressed their overwhelming desire to assist us. Can I sit here and presume that they will approve it without modification? No. But am I absolutely confident that they are going to work with us? I am."
The policy change comes after months of scandal in which at least 250 priests nationally have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct claims. Some church leaders have been accused of ignoring complaints and shuffling molesters from parish to parish.
On Saturday, members of victims' groups like the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) charged that the new measures fell short of what was needed.
Adopted Friday at a bishops conference in Dallas, the national guidelines require church officials to report any accusation of a minor being abused by clergy and give the laity a role in policing this matter. The policing would be unlike any previously granted in the church.
The approved charter was not the widely sought "zero-tolerance" policy that would have defrocked an offending priest. Instead, the new rules leave open the possibility that offenders could conduct Mass in private and administer last rites to the dying.
Victims' rights groups have argued that formal defrocking complete removal from the priesthood is the only acceptable punishment.
"What we have a problem with is the suggestion that any priest that has offended children will be able to retain the tools of his trade even just the title 'father,'" said SNAP board member Mark Serrano.
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said the new mandate is as good as formally defrocking the clerical offenders.
"It does the job," he said after returning from the Dallas meeting.
"Our bishop's meeting yesterday took decisive steps to cut out the cancer from our church, the cancer of child sexual abuse," he said. "We've begun the task; now we look for actions to match words."
As bishops returned to their pulpits yesterday, many church leaders apologized to their congregations.
"This is a harsh day. These are terrible times. And we are all outraged, scandalized," Cardinal Edward Egan told parishioners at St. Charles Parish on Staten Island. "We need to pick up the pieces, and we will."
The article is based in part on wire service reports.

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