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US Catholic Leaders To Adopt Church Policy in Dealing with Sex Abuse - 2002-06-12

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States meet this week, beginning Thursday, to adopt a nationwide policy on dealing with priests who sexually abuse young people. Many Catholics want all priests who abuse children to be removed from the priesthood, but the church is suggesting some priests could be given a second chance.

Catholics at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago were among those attending special prayer services this week, to pray for the 300 U.S. Catholic bishops preparing for their meeting in Dallas beginning Thursday. Drina Nikola has said more than 20 Chicago-area churches are represented at this service of healing, justice and transformation.

"It is the idea that we want our voices to be heard, but not in a way of making the bishops wrong. We are here to support them. We have wisdom, we have the Holy Spirit in us as well to contribute to the solution," he said.

During the last month, more than 13,000 Chicago-area Catholics responded to Cardinal Francis George's call for input on how to address the problem of sex abuse by members of the clergy. More than 80 percent of those responding to a diocese survey said any priest who abuses a child should be removed from the priesthood. Steve Shaller was among hundreds of Chicago-area Catholics attending a series of public meetings about the church's sex scandal last month.

"Should priests continue to serve if they have sinned this way? Let's call it what it really is, a felony. It is a felony crime. Would we want teachers, doctors, dentists, any other professionals who have committed serious crimes in their profession against people entrusted to their care to continue to serve? Absolutely not. Same for a priest: Out," Mr. Shaller said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends all priests who abuse young people in the future be removed from the priesthood. But, it recommends that priests with only one case of abuse in their past might be able to continue in the ministry if they have received treatment and a review panel determines they are no longer a threat.

The Catholic reform group Call to Action says the punishment for abuse should depend on the severity of the incident. Claire Noonan is a spokeswoman for the group. "What we would like to use is the legal standard of a felony: zero tolerance of any crime that would be considered a felony by the civil courts," Ms. Noonan said.

She said priests whose abuse is considered a misdemeanor, or minor crime, could be returned to the ministry after treatment and evaluation.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George said he believes the bishops will decide to remove all priests who abuse from the ministry, even if the abuse occurred years ago. He also favors punishment for bishops who have known about cases of abuse, but have kept them quiet.

"There have to be sanctions for a bishop who has been negligent in the same way there are sanctions for a priest who has been negligent," Cardinal George said.

This abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church began earlier this year, with word that Boston's Catholic cardinal transferred abusive priests to other parishes.

Cardinal George pointed out that while the problem of abuse by the clergy is not limited to the United States, he does not think that whatever policy is adopted in Dallas this week will be accepted in other countries. "I think the situation in the U.S., because our legal code is somewhat different and our culture is somewhat different, is not immediately transferable as a solution to sinfulness, which is universal, of course," he said.

Any policy agreed upon is subject to approval by the Vatican.