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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 05:12 GMT 06:12 UK
Paedophile priests face expulsion
US cardinals and Vatican clergymen meet in Vatican's Apostolic Palace
The cardinals discussed a "zero tolerance" policy
American cardinals have taken a major step towards approving a policy that Roman Catholic priests found to have abused children will be sacked.

We know the heavy burden of sorrow and shame that you are bearing because some have betrayed the grace of ordination by abusing those entrusted to their care

Extract from letter to US clergy
Bishop Wilton Gregory, who heads the United States Episcopal Conference, said there was a "growing consensus" in the Church that the reassignment of offending priests was "not an option".

But the cardinals, who were summoned to the Vatican by the Pope, appeared to stop short of announcing a policy of "zero tolerance" towards abusers.

They said in a statement that a final decision would be taken at the next conference in Dallas, Texas, in June as it was not within the competence of Wednesday's meeting.

US cardinals hearing Pope's message
The Pope said child abuse was an appalling sin
It said the Church was anxious to move expeditiously but correctly, with a procedure that was clear, specific and airtight.

But the cardinals also released a message to all US priests pledging to support them through "these troubled times".

"We know the heavy burden of sorrow and shame that you are bearing because some have betrayed the grace of ordination by abusing those entrusted to their care," the letter said.

The news came at the end of a two-day crisis meeting in response to the rash of paedophilia cover-up scandals that have rocked the Church in the US and several other countries.

Pope's condemnation

Concern about the children affected, the cardinals said, had broken the Pope's heart, and the most important thing was the need to be sure children were not being hurt.

I will talk my children out of being an altar boy or girl and that is the saddest thing
Sandra, Canada

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But the BBC's Brian Hanrahan said the cardinals' statement was somewhat vague. It mentioned a special process to remove priests who were serial predatory sex abusers, suggesting there was still disagreement over how to deal with first-time offenders.

The meeting also failed to address the future of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who is facing resignation calls over allegations of cover-ups of sex abuse cases.

Cardinal Law was absent from a news conference announcing the statement, citing "prior engagements".

The meeting follows the Pope's strongest ever condemnation of child abuse in a statement on Tuesday.

Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston
Cardinal Law is under pressure to resign
"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," the pontiff said.

The Roman Catholic Church in the US has been criticised for transferring priests known to have molested children instead of suspending them and telling the police.

The Pope summoned the cardinals for two days of closed-door talks after it became clear that the Church was being damaged by the scandals.

Resignation pressure

More than 400 complaints have been lodged against priests in the Boston diocese alone.

Accusations of child molestation have also been made in at least 16 other US dioceses including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The scandals are a huge financial burden for the Church and there is talk that some archdioceses will be bankrupted as a result.

Although the US Church is the hardest hit by sex abuse allegations, similar scandals have hit clergy in different countries in recent years, including Austria, Ireland, Poland, France and Mexico.

Former priest Dr Anthony Padovano
"The church must stop the behaviour then try to rehabilitate the individual"
The BBC's Brian Barron
"In effect zero tolerance for sex-offending priests"
See also:

24 Apr 02 | Americas
Analysis: US cardinals get message
22 Apr 02 | Americas
US Catholics worry for future
16 Apr 02 | Americas
US cardinal welcomes Pope talks
23 Apr 02 | Americas
US press: Senior cardinal 'to go'
23 Apr 02 | Europe
A global scandal
23 Apr 02 | Europe
Text of the Pope's speech
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