Papal summit on a church crisis

Thirteen US cardinals head to the Vatican today for unprecedented talks concerning sexual abuse by priests.

Late last month, a worried mother and father in the French Mediterranean port of Toulon went to see the city's Catholic bishop. If their boy was telling the truth, they said, their local priest was a pedophile.

Bishop Dominique Rey called the priest in, and he was not convinced by the clergyman's denials. So the bishop went with the parents to the police station, and he reported his suspicions along with theirs.

That was a rare and courageous step for a senior figure in the French Catholic church, which is only now coming to terms with the child molesters in its ranks. As American cardinals meet with the pope Tuesday in the Vatican to discuss how to deal with sex-abuse scandals in the US church, Catholics in other countries will be watching for signs that their spiritual leaders are taking the issue as seriously as Bishop Rey.

Among the ideas under discussion are automatic reporting of abuse incidents to police – and a policy of "zero tolerance," which could mean that any priest credibly accused of sexual misconduct would automatically be removed from his ministry.

All over Europe, the Catholic church has been rocked recently by revelations of child abuse by clergymen, and by evidence that church elders covered up their crimes.

A month ago, Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, a close friend of Pope John Paul II, resigned as Archbishop of Poznan in Poland after a dozen young seminarians accused him of sexual abuse.

Only a few days earlier Msgr. Eamon Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns in Ireland, had stood down amid criticism that he had failed to act on reports over many years that one of his priests was sexually assaulting boys in his charge.

Last October Bishop John Ward of Cardiff, in Wales, was forced to resign over his mishandling of pedophile priests, and six months ago a French bishop, Pierre Pican, was given a suspended three-month jail sentence for failing to tell the authorities that he knew a clergyman in his diocese to be a serial child molester.

It was that case that prompted the French Bishops' Conference to adopt a formal policy 18 months ago, agreed by the heads of all 95 dioceses, that "priests guilty of acts of pedophilia must answer for those acts before the law," and that the bishops "cannot, nor do they want to, remain passive, let alone cover up criminal acts."

Taking action

A new church brochure, to be distributed this week to all French priests, catechism teachers, scout leaders, and others who deal with children, makes it clear that – as French law demands – all suspicions must be reported to the police.

"The fact that we are members of the church does not mean we are not citizens of France," says Stanislas Lalanne, secretary general of the French Bishops' Conference.

The Irish church has had a similar policy in place since 1996, laid out in a report from a committee of bishops set up in the wake of the first pedophile priest scandal to hit the church in Ireland, where 60 percent of the Catholic population attends Mass every week.

But the Vatican has not yet signed on to the idea of automatic reporting to the police, and some US cardinals are expected to push top church officials in Rome to make such a policy a general guideline.

The cardinals are believed to be seeking papal blessing for new ways of handling sex-abuse scandals that they hope the next US Bishops' Conference in June will adopt.

"The purpose of the meeting ... will be to empower the June conference," Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the US Bishops' Conference, told reporters last week.

While the idea of "zero tolerance" may be under discussion, it risks running counter to canon law, which guarantees any priest accused of misconduct the right to defend himself in a church court.

"The problem with 'zero tolerance' is that the rights of the accused must be respected, and that under canon law, it is impossible to automatically defrock a priest," explains Orazio Petrosillo, an author of seven books on the Vatican who teaches at a Vatican university.

It would also be unusual for the Vatican to lay down an international guideline in such matters, which have traditionally been left to individual bishops' discretion. "A diocese is not a field office of the Vatican," Msgr. Maniscalco pointed out.

But options short of defrocking are open to the church authorities, such as "laicization," one step short of expulsion from the priesthood, or suspension from pastoral duties.

"From the meeting next week, I believe a strict general policy will be adopted, which, with the authority of the Holy See, will be implemented worldwide," Mr. Petrosillo predicts.

Forging ahead

France is among the countries where the local church has not waited for Vatican guidance.

With 50 priests either jailed or under investigation for sex abuse (out of a total of 25,000), a high level working group is already studying ways of helping the families of victims, how to spot potential pedophiles among seminarians, and what to do with priests who have served their prison terms.

In Ireland, too, where a flood of cases – mostly dating back a number of years – have recently come to light, the church has set up several groups looking into different aspects of the problem, which could cost the church tens of millions of dollars in damages if victims decide to sue.

Two weeks ago the Primate of the Catholic church in Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady, said "we again express our deepest apologies for inadequacies in our response" to the pain of sex abuse victims.

Some critics, however, are dubious. "The church has learned nothing," says one father whose two children were abused by Fr. Brendan Smyth, one of Ireland's most notorious clergymen sex offenders. "People are beginning to think the unthinkable, to sue the church, to force them to take the problem seriously."

On the Thursday before Easter, Pope John Paul II said that "as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination," and that the "grave scandal" was casting a "shadow of suspicion" over the whole clergy.

On Saturday the pontiff, in his most direct comments since the abuse scandal in the US erupted, ordered bishops to "diligently investigate accusations" against priests alleged to have broken their vows of celibacy.

The forceful tone appeared to mark a change of heart since the pope prolonged the tenure until 1995 of the Archbishop of Vienna, Msgr. Hans-Hermann Groer, despite widespread reports of his homosexual advances to seminarians.

Cloud of skepticism

Not everyone is persuaded that the Vatican will match its words with action.

Though the days of shuffling abusive priests from one parish to another may be over, "I think they will continue to cover up as they always have," fears one expert in canon law who works in the Vatican.

Others are more hopeful.

"For a long time, we in the church hid this question and minimized it," says Father Lalanne. "That is no longer the case. Now we are taking this very seriously."

• Courtney Walsh in Rome and Anne Cadwallader in Belfast contributed to this report.

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