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Catholic Bishops to Adopt 'Zero Tolerance' Sex Abuse Policy - 2002-06-14

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas, Texas, are expected to adopt what is called a zero tolerance policy for priests who sexually abuse children. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops votes on the proposal later Friday, in hopes of ending a sex abuse scandal involving several hundred priests.

The bishops met late into Thursday night to amend an earlier proposal that would have allowed priests with only one case of abuse in their past to remain on the job after counseling and evaluation. Chicago Cardinal Francis George said many bishops felt that was not tough enough, and made some changes to the policy document.

"It gets rid of a provision that I was hoping they would get rid of, and that is that one strike is permitted. That kind of language is unacceptable because it sounds as if you can do it once and no one will pay much attention to you. Even one time is terribly abusive," Mr. George said.

Bishops will discuss the proposal before voting later in the day Friday.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minnesota said there are two options left for the Conference to consider: removing from the priesthood any priest found guilty of abuse, or a slightly less strict policy in which older priests found guilty of past abuse could remain in the priesthood, but be kept out of parishes and barred from celebrating public Masses.

The head of the Conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Illinois, said Thursday's closed-door meetings were the first time many bishops had the chance to discuss this scandal with a large number of their peers.

"I would say that bishops spoke very frankly about their anger, their fears, their disappointments, their hopes. We asked each other some very candid, direct questions, we expressed regret for mistakes that had been made. I think we were quite honest with each other," he said.

Thursday night, about 150 Catholics held a prayer service and a march through downtown Dallas, stopping outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting. They remained there all night, holding candles and praying for the bishops. Not all were confident the bishops' action would make future abuse less likely. Joe Gallagher traveled here from Boston.

"I would say that one of the things they are getting good at because they have had a lot of practice at it is verbal apologies. What we look for is action in the dioceses," he said.

Any policy adopted by the bishops here in Dallas is subject to approval by the Vatican.