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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Analysis: US Church shaken by sex scandals
Cardinal Bernard Law
Cardinal Law is resisting demands for his resignation
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Peter Gould
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould
line

The decision by the Pope to summon his American cardinals to Rome is a measure of his concern over the damage being done by the sex abuse scandal.

Allegations across the United States have created a crisis of trust for the Church, with claims that senior clerics failed to take action for years.

Some dioceses have already paid out millions of dollars to settle law suits brought by victims. And abusers are now facing prosecution in the criminal courts.


The damage has been immeasurable, the toll is tremendous

Bishop Wilton Gregory

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has been under intense pressure to resign. But he has made it clear he has no intention of standing down.

John Paul II is clearly very disturbed by the continuing accusations against priests in the United States, and the allegations of a cover up.

Zero tolerance

In 1989, US archbishops were called to the Vatican to discuss the state of the American church with the Pope, but that meeting did not have the same degree of urgency.

Demonstrators with placards
Feelings in Boston are running high
"Summoning all of the cardinals to Rome on such short notice is unprecedented," said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America.

"I believe that the Pope wants to get direct input from the cardinals about the sex abuse crisis and discuss it with them.

"Obviously, the Pope cannot micromanage the priest personnel policies of every diocese in the US. But the cardinals could float ideas with the Pope and get his reactions."

In New York, the church has handed prosecutors a list of priests suspected of abusing children. And in Boston, a "zero tolerance" policy is now in force.

The allegations of abuse have created a climate of mistrust that has tarnished the reputation of the Church.

The perception that church leaders have kept quiet about the problem has increased public anger over the activities of a small minority of their priests.

Sins

In the past, a priest who prompted complaints might have been moved quietly to a different area.

Cardinal Roger Mahony
Cardinal Mahony: Time to discuss married priests
"Initially, the Church viewed sexual offences as sins to be confessed, rather than a sickness to be treated," says Father Curtis Bryant, a psychologist who has treated American priests.

"Catholic authorities liberally forgave and trusted the offending priest, as they would any penitent, instead of putting him out of ministry."

Father Bryant is a former director of inpatient clinical services at the St Luke Institute in Maryland. Among its patients are priests identified as sexual abusers.

Writing in the magazine America, Father Bryant argues that sending people who need treatment to the criminal justice system is ineffective and inhumane.


There is no screening that would identify a paedophile

Dr Frederick Berlin

"So-called zero tolerance policies can lead to conduct unbecoming a loving Christian community," he says.

"We need to find ways to meet the legitimate concerns of the criminal justice system and the ability of mental health treatments to make sex offenders responsible for their behaviour."

Father Bryant says that out of 450 priests who have undergone treatment over a 10-year period, only three "relapses" have been reported, and none involved physical contact.

Healing

So how should the Church now deal with sexual abusers in its midst? Recent revelations have shocked many parishes.

Father Thomas Reese
Father Thomas Reese: Pope's summons to Rome is "unprecedented"
They have also left many non-abusing priests feeling that they are now under suspicion.

And among gay members of the clergy, there is concern that they will be seen as part of the problem.

The current scandal has also reopened the debate about the celibacy of the priesthood. Opinion polls show that a majority of US Catholics now believe that priests should be allowed to marry.

The Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, says he does not believe that celibacy leads to sex abuse. But he has become the first American cardinal to suggest that the issue should be discussed.

His comments have caused a stir, given the Pope's opposition to any move to end the celibacy of the priesthood.

Checks

But what about the next generation of priests? Can more be done to prevent paedophiles from entering the priesthood?

Dr Frederick Berlin, an expert on sexual disorders who has acted as a consultant for the US church, has found no evidence that paedophiles are particularly drawn to the priesthood.

"There is no screening that would identify a paedophile," he said.


So-called zero tolerance policies can lead to conduct unbecoming a loving Christian community

Father Curtis Bryant

"We can do some common sense things, such as background checks. We can provide more treatment so that paedophiles can get help.

"But there is no way that we can identify ahead of time a paedophile who has not previously been identified, and who wants very much to keep secret his own sexual yearnings."

But the church knows action is needed to restore public confidence in the priesthood.

"While we deplore the sexual abuse of young people, especially that committed by a cleric, we are confident that the numbers of priests involved in such criminal activity are few," says Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The damage, however, has been immeasurable. The toll this phenomenon has taken on our people and our ministry is tremendous.

"This is a time for Catholic people, bishops, clergy, religious and laity, to resolve anew to work together to assure the safety of our children."

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See also:

16 Apr 02 | Americas
US cardinal welcomes Pope talks
21 Mar 02 | Europe
Pope denounces 'evil' sex priests
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