- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops yesterday said the sexual-abuse problem is under control and warned that critics inside and outside the church are using the scandal to discredit their authority.
"There are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, opening the annual meeting here of the U.S. hierarchy.
Members and foes of the church are saying, "Let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock," he said. "We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is."
The bishops yesterday agreed by voice vote to move ahead with a document that holds them, as well as priests, accountable under a charter to root out sexual abuse of minors.
The "episcopal oversight" document would also demand that bishops police each other on any sexual affairs, not just the homosexual abuse of minors that is at issue in most of the 325 priest suspensions this year.
"We are beginning to move beyond the charter to any sexual misconduct by priests," said San Diego Bishop Robert H. Brom, head of the drafting committee.
The primary business of the more that 240 bishops who attended this year's meeting is to discuss and adopt norms, or rules, for investigating accusations of sexual abuse by priests.
Still, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said, the scandal cannot derail work on charity and social justice. "We can't just abandon that whole agenda," he said.
At a June meeting in Dallas, the bishops adopted a "charter" on dealing with sexual abuse and tough norms for acting on accusations.
Last month, the Vatican revised the norms to allow more protection for priests in church investigations and hearings, but the U.S. bishops insisted yesterday that it was not a softening of what the press had called a "zero tolerance" policy.
Priests facing a credible accusation of even a "single act" of sexual abuse "will be permanently removed from ministry," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who worked with the Vatican on the revisions.
"We have not at all backed off on that commitment," he said.
The bishops will vote tomorrow on adoption of the Vatican-revised norms and whether to adjust the U.S. charter to match the revised norms.
Under the Vatican revisions, the norms also will cover the nation's religious orders, which contain a third of Catholic priests in America.
"We have to work through with [the religious orders] a number of difficulties," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. The orders organize differently than dioceses with bishops.
Voice of the Faithful, a lay group claiming 25,000 Catholic supporters, said the revised norms downgrade the local lay review board and give the bishop too much unilateral power.
The revision "reduces the laity's role" to advising a bishop, not hearing the direct accusation, said Susan Troy, a member of the group.
After the sexual-abuse scandal engulfed the church in January, a group of eight bishops called for an American "plenary council" of the church to discuss sexual integrity in the priesthood and society.
Tomorrow, the bishops will debate the proposal, which reportedly is backed by 60 bishops. Such a plenary meeting was last held in 1884.
Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rejects such a proposal, but Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde said a well-planned event could help. "The proposal for a plenary assembly is an excellent one," he said. "This could help us grow in holiness."
The bishops' charter, norms, national review board and a watchdog office of youth protection all focus on child sexual abuse without raising the issue of homosexual priests who seek out young men.
Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, in an interview yesterday, said that there is no exclusive link between homosexuality and pedophilia, but added that the bishops probably won't discuss the reported preponderance of homosexual men in the priesthood.
"I've heard no bishops talk of raising the issue, as of now," he said.
Though church teaching condemns homosexual acts and says same-sex attraction is "disordered," the Vatican reportedly is working on a document stating that homosexuals should not be recruited as priests.
Cardinal Bevilacqua cited the Vatican project and suggested the U.S. bishops would wait on that document before discussing the topic.

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