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Vatican: American Bishops Continue Sex-Abuse Talks

  • Ron Synovitz

American Catholic leaders are in a second round of talks at the Vatican today concerning a scandal involving child sex abuse by U.S. priests. In talks with the American cardinals yesterday, Pope John Paul II made his strongest statement yet on the crisis, saying there is no room in the priesthood for those who harm children.

Prague, 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Roman Catholic cardinals from the United States are completing two days of talks at the Vatican today after being summoned there by Pope John Paul II to discuss a crisis over child sex abuse by American priests.

The scandal involves some cases of sexual abuse dating back 30 to 40 years, but public criticism has been escalating since documents were released in a recent trial against a former Boston priest. Those documents show that senior U.S. church leaders allowed priests to continue ministering, though they were known to have sexually abused children.

The critics allege that Catholic officials in the U.S. have consistently sheltered pedophile priests for decades and have tried to cover up their abuses in order to protect the reputation of the church.

The pope told the cardinals yesterday that top church officials must respond to the crisis with "charity for the victims." He said there is no place in the Catholic Church for priests who sexually abuse children.

He said the behavior of pedophile priests is wrong by every standard, and that society is correct to consider sexual abuse a criminal offense. He also said that it is an "appalling sin in the eyes of God."

The pope said the reputation of the Catholic Church has been seriously damaged by the scandal and that many people now view the Church with distrust. He also said people need to know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the Catholic doctrine on sexual morality, which he called "a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life."

The Vatican released the text of the pope's remarks to the cardinals along with a video containing portions of his speech to them yesterday.

"Let me assure you...that I greatly appreciate the effort you are making to keep the Holy See, and me personally, informed regarding the complex and difficult situation which has arisen in your country in recent months," the pope said.

The pontiff also asked Roman Catholics in the United States to stay in contact with their priests and bishops and to support them with prayers. He said the Vatican will always be open to American clergymen -- all the more so when the U.S. Catholic community is in distress -- and expressed the hope that the talks would help to resolve the matter satisfactorily.

"I am confident that your discussions here will bear much fruit for the good of the Catholic people of the United States," the pope said.

Some of the U.S. cardinals at the meeting told reporters they had not discussed the possible resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who is at the center of allegations of attempted cover-ups by U.S. church officials.

Analysts say there is a widespread misconception about the strength of the pope's powers over the Catholic Church in the United States. They say this misconception has contributed to confusion among Catholics who find it hard to understand why the pope had not responded sooner to the crisis over sex scandals involving clergymen.

In fact, the Vatican concentrates mostly on broader theological issues. In recent years, it has been hesitant to become involved in local matters involving the church. Instead, bishops are seen as the ultimate authorities in their dioceses. In the present scandal, the pope summoned the cardinals to the Vatican only after a group of American bishops asked for guidance on the matter.

A communique by the American cardinals is expected at the end of today's meetings and could include specific reform proposals that would be incorporated into a platform being prepared for a June meeting of all U.S. bishops.

Reports say one new idea that was proposed at the Vatican talks this week is the formation of a national panel of prominent laymen and women to monitor the church's performance.