Catholics raise doubts about Vatican moves

Some US groups want stronger zero-tolerance policy and more accountability.

After two extraordinary days of high-profile attention on Vatican City and the scandal shaking the Roman Catholic Church, US prelates now turn to the task of firming up a national set of standards on clergy sexual abuse that will convince American Catholics their concerns are being addressed.

The cardinals issued proposals at the close of the Rome meeting with the pope that aim to make it easier to remove priests who abuse minors. But they failed to agree on specifics raised during their sessions, such as a zero-tolerance policy for removing abusers or a national panel of lay advisers who would monitor church performance.

And despite remarkably frank interviews over the two days that seemed to show the cardinals' sensitivity to Catholics' concerns, the final communiqué included no mention of greater lay involvement or any measures of accountability for the hierarchy. They also issued a special letter to priests, but there was no apology to victims of abuse.

A special committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will be responsible for turning the proposals into specific standards that all US bishops can approve at a June meeting in Dallas.

"It was a high-stakes meeting – their backs were to the wall," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "The US cardinals and Rome were under a microscope to respond adequately and firmly."

No strong national policy

While the summit gave convincing evidence the church was focusing on the problem of protecting children, it fell far short of a uniform policy with the pope's imprimatur. "The document is a skeletal outline. There is much, much more work to be done," admitted Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholics Bishops.

The cardinals said they will propose a special process to speed dismissal of a priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors," and another process for those priests who are not "notorious" but still may pose a further threat.

The idea that some priests involved in abuse might still be returned to active religious life is distressing to many victims and their supporters.

"We weren't terribly optimistic to start with, but we're disappointed," says David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. "Yesterday the pope said there is no place in ministry for an abuser, but today the cardinals seemed to be saying, well, maybe sometimes, some cases. This backtracking so quickly is disturbing."

The cardinals also seem to make a distinction between pedophiles and those who abuse older minors. Some involved in treatment strongly disagree. "That specific distinction is deplorable," says Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee, Wisc. "A felony is a felony, whether it's a child or a minor."

He acknowledges that some individual priests fall into gray areas. "But these are not engineers or plumbers or accountants – they're guardians, in a position of public trust."

A. W. Richard Sipe, a California psychotherapist who has worked with both victims and abusive priests, says that distinction is wrong, but there needs to be a more personalized approach than just one strike and you're out, and local review boards could help to make those calls.

Every diocese needs an independent lay board to investigate allegations, agrees Thomas Reese, editor of "America," a Jesuit weekly. "No professional group is good at policing itself."

Celibacy and homosexuality in the priesthood were also on the agenda. The cardinals simply reaffirmed priestly celibacy, but there is considerable debate over how homosexuality relates to the abuse problem and whether homosexuals should be precluded from the priesthood. The proposals call for special attention to the admission requirements of seminaries and their moral teachings.

Didn't go far enough

Many Catholics in the US are disappointed by the summit, feeling the church still isn't acting like a church.

The pope's statement of "solidarity and concern" for the victims was "a minimal acknowledgement that can't be applauded," says Anne Barrett Doyle, a Boston parishioner. "I was looking to him, as our spiritual leader, for a real pouring forth of compassion, remorse, humility, and love for these people. This is not a pastoral response, one that will heal."

As for the management failures – the coverups that have stirred dismay and anger – some felt the pope simply followed the same line as his bishops, blaming mistakes on bad advice from clinical experts. "It's a step forward to focus on the problem, but there is still not a full acceptance of responsibility," says Mr. Sipe. "People are beginning to see that this is a pattern, the way the church handles sexual complaints and problems."

But who do the bishops answer to?

The issues of accountability are troubling many people. John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, just completed a tour around the US. "The issue with Catholics there has shifted from sexual abuse to accountability, and the larger question of to whom exactly are the bishops accountable," he says.

"How can you restore credibility without addressing the institutional flaws that led to the failure to deal with the problem?" asks Jim Muller, a cardiologist from Wellesley, Mass, who heads a new group called Voice of the Faithful, which advocates more lay involvement in church decisions. "The difficulty comes from absolute power."

Some Catholics say the story isn't finished until the pope himself meets with victims of abuse. Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based group that has grown quickly to 2,000 members from 12 countries, is requesting a meeting with the Vatican to express concerns of the laity. Their delegation would include some people who were abused. "We've asked the 12 US cardinals to support our request," says Dr. Muller.

Courtney Walsh in Rome contributed to this report.

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