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US Catholic Leaders Seek to Develop Sex Abuse Policy - 2002-04-28

Catholic church leaders in the United States are facing policy decisions after meeting with the Pope about mounting claims of sexual abuse by priests. Cardinals are attempting to develop a uniform policy that deals with clergymen who molest children.

American cardinals were summoned to Rome last week by Pope John Paul II to discuss claims priests had sexually abused minors. It is now up to U.S. church leaders to decide how best to handle those claims.

Pope John Paul urged the cardinals to remember "the power of Christian conversion" and "the radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God" when considering how to deal with alleged pedophile priests.

Chicago Archbishop Francis George says the Rome gathering was not a policy-making meeting. Cardinal George says the purpose was to discuss whether the Vatican would allow U.S. church leaders to create their own national policy for handling priests accused as child sexual abusers.

"People rightly ask, how could this man be a priest at all? And so we have to be able to respond with a streamlined process. But the Pope is concerned be sure that everyone's rights are respected, no matter what process you have," said Cardindal George, in an interview on the CBS television program Face the Nation.

In the wake of the Vatican meeting, many of America's Roman Catholic cardinals appear to be leaning toward a "zero tolerance" policy.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He defined the policy on Fox News Sunday.

"After all this terrible thing has happened [with] this loss of confidence of so many of our people, if any priest would do this again, it would have to mean that he was a sick man and shouldn't be in the ministry and would be out," said Cardinal McCarrick.

But there are those in the Catholic clergy who think a pedophile priest could remain active in the church.

Appearing on NBC television's Meet the Press, University of Notre Dame professor Rev. Richard McBrien thinks a national policy on priests who sexually abuse children should be flexible. "We don't have to be utterly draconian in this approach to zero tolerance," said Rev. McBrien. "There are different levels we can adopt, [including taking] the priest out of a ministry. Keep him from any contact with children."

Since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in the Catholic Church in January, the Associated Press is reporting that at least 177 priests suspected of molesting minors have either resigned or been taken off duty in the United States. American bishops will consider a uniform policy on sexual abuse by priests at a meeting in June.