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US Catholic Church Re-Examines Sex Abuse Policies - 2002-04-05

A sex abuse scandal that is roiling the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has forced some of the most powerful U.S. Catholic leaders to change the way they handle accusations of abusive priests. Meanwhile, new lawsuits were filed Wednesday against the Vatican and three U.S. Catholic Dioceses for allegedly covering up charges of priests who had abused minors.

The lawsuits, filed in the U.S. states of Florida and Oregon, accuse the Vatican of directing a global conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse and protect abusive priests.

The two American men who filed the lawsuits say they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests decades ago when they were children.

Dioceses in Portland, Oregon, St. Petersburg, Florida and Chicago, Illinois, were also named as defendants.

In the past, lawsuits against the Vatican, which has the protected status of a sovereign nation, have failed. But many U.S. dioceses have settled lawsuits involving charges of sexual abuse out of court, awarding millions of dollars to the plaintiffs.

The latest lawsuits were filed at a time when public outrage is growing among many U.S. Catholics over the way the Church has dealt with charges of abusive priests by reassigning them to different parishes. Many states, including New York, legally exempt clergy from reporting cases of sexual abuse to police.

Nonetheless, prosecutors, such as one New York district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, has called on Church leaders to cooperate with law enforcement. "The bottom line is that everyone in this society, whether they are part of a religious institution or not, has a civil and certainly a moral obligation to report crimes of suspected child abuse to appropriate law enforcement authorities," she said. "We are the ones who should make the decisions of whether or not charges should be filed and what should be done."

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was one of the first high level Church leaders in the United States to publicly work with law enforcement to combat abuse. He announced a "zero tolerance policy" for abuse after it was revealed in January that scores of priests suspected of abuse had been reassigned over the past 40 years.

This week, the most powerful U.S. Catholic leader, New York Cardinal Edward Egan, followed Boston's lead and turned over to prosecutors the names of priests accused of abuse over nearly half a century. Cardinal Egan's action is a reversal of his previous policy of only cooperating with law enforcement authorities with the permission of the victim. The New York Archdiocese has also appointed a committee to investigate allegations and decide whether to report cases to civil authorities.

Dioceses in other states, including California, Connecticut and New Jersey, have re-examined policies involving sexual abuse of minors. But the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, New York has refused to hand over names of priests accused of abuse.