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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 20:20 GMT 21:20 UK
Abuse challenge for US bishops
Cardinal Francis George
Dallas bound: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago

It is being billed as one of the most important meetings in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

In Dallas, Texas, the American bishops gather on Thursday under the intense gaze of the media, knowing the reputation of their church is on the line.


Zero tolerance past, present and future

Cardinal Mahony
Los Angeles

In any other year, the discussions of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops would attract little attention outside the columns of religious journals.

But the sex abuse scandal that has spread through dioceses across the country guarantees this meeting saturation coverage.

Under siege

The critical nature of this meeting is underlined by Bishop George Niederauer, of Salt Lake City.

"The world is watching, the Catholic world and non-Catholics as well," he says.

Cardinal William Keeler
Cardinal William Keeler: "One offence is one too many"
The agenda is dominated by the need to agree a policy for dealing with priests who molest children and young people.

The Church has appeared to be under siege since the prosecution of a priest in Boston triggered a series of revelations across the country.

Four bishops and nearly 250 priests have resigned or been suspended following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Two priests have committed suicide after being accused, and another has been shot and wounded.

At least 300 legal cases have been filed by victims of sexual abuse, and the bill for the church is expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Zero tolerance

In April, American cardinals were summoned to Rome for an unprecedented meeting with the Pope.

It came amid demands from many Catholics in the United States for a "zero tolerance" policy for dealing with priests who abuse children.

Protest banner
Many Catholics are angry about cover-ups
Traditionally, such problems have been dealt with locally, with the bishop deciding what to do with the offender. In the past, some priests were moved quietly to another parish.

But with many Catholics now expressing anger at the way cases of sexual abuse have been covered up, it is clear that tough action is needed.

The bishops will vote on a draft document called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

It expresses "great sorrow and profound regret" for the abuse of children and young people by priests, and promises to reach out to victims and their families to promote healing and reconciliation.

Strict rules

It also proposes strict measures for dealing with allegations of abuse.

  • Each diocese is to set up a review board, comprised mainly of lay people.

  • If the victim is a minor, the diocese will be required to report the accusation to the authorities.

  • A priest under investigation will be removed from his normal duties, and if the allegation is proved he will be removed from the priesthood.

  • In dealing with cases from the past, a priest with a single complaint against him might be able to remain in the priesthood, subject to certain conditions.

    It is this loophole for a priest who has offended once, perhaps many years ago, that is likely to prove the most controversial.

    Protection

    It is thought that many bishops support a policy of "one strike and you're out".

    Cardinal Adam Maida
    Cardinal Adam Maida: Worried about legal problems

    The Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, says he has already implemented measures that go beyond the draft proposals:

    "I will urge my colleagues to adopt a national policy on sexual abuse as comprehensive as the one in place here: zero tolerance - past, present and future."

    Monastery

    But some bishops are uneasy about taking action, years after the event, against priests who have not re-offended.

    As an expert on church law, the Archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Adam Maida, believes it could be a difficult and lengthy process to defrock all priests known to have abused in the past.

    An alternative he suggests would be to send the offender to a monastery where he could live out his life as a priest.

    Clearly, there is going to be intense debate in Dallas, and groups supporting victims of abuse by priests are expected to lobby the meeting.

  •  WATCH/LISTEN
     ON THIS STORY
    The BBC's Tom Carver
    "The most important meeting in its history"
    The Church has been rocked by recent abuse revelations

    Boston cardinal quits

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    23 Apr 02 | Europe
    22 Apr 02 | Europe
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