Cardinals Agree on Ousting Priests for Sexual Abuse
April 25, 2002
By MELINDA HENNEBERGER
New York Times
ROME, Thursday, April 25 - At the end of two days of
meetings with Pope John Paul II and other top Vatican
officials on how to prevent clerical sexual abuse, American
cardinals on Wednesday night issued a set of proposals
intended to help remove priests who abuse minors. But the
recommendations were far murkier than the zero-tolerance
policy that had been promised by some cardinals just hours
What did become obvious this evening, at a news conference
that began two and a half hours late because cardinals were
still debating how to present the conclusions of the
meetings, was that church leaders remain divided over how
This afternoon, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of
Washington told reporters that the pope had clearly paved
the way for a one-strike-and-you're-out policy for new
cases of abuse by priests. "Anyone in the future who would
do something like that to a child or a youngster, then that
is it," Cardinal McCarrick said.
But the final document released on Wednesday night said
church leaders wanted to find a way to dismiss "a priest
who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial,
predatory sexual abuse of minors." It said there should be
another process for dismissing priests in "cases which are
not notorious" and might be less clear-cut. It seems to
suggest that it would be up to the bishop to determine
whether the abusive priests constituted "a threat for the
protection of children and young people."
Asked specifically whether a priest accused in the past of
abuse could stay in active ministry, Bishop Wilton D.
Gregory, president of the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, said "that will be one of the hotly
debated questions," when American bishops meet in June.
On his way out of the closing session, Cardinal Francis E.
George of Chicago said church officials wanted to find a
streamlined administrative process for dismissing abusive
priests, but he added that there was still much concern for
the rights of the accused. The pope "is sensitive to the
misuse of the administrative process," Cardinal George
said, referring to John Paul's life in Poland under
In addition to the set of proposals for removing priests,
the cardinals also drafted a letter to be sent to priests
in the United States, expressing sympathy and support
"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 read.
There were several empty chairs on the dais at the news
conference at the conclusion of the meetings, and officials
said that was because all but 2 of the 12 American
cardinals who had planned to attend had other engagements
and could not change their plans when the hour grew late.
In the end, only Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal J. Francis
Stafford, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for
Laity, were there.
When asked specifically why Cardinal Bernard F. Law of
Boston, who has been under pressure to resign over his
handling of cases, was not present, Bishop Gregory told
reporters: "Originally, when we thought we would complete
our work earlier, we thought all our cardinals would be
here. Some made plans and some could not get out of those
Asked what plans Cardinal Law could have had that were more
important than addressing the scandals, Bishop Gregory
said: "I cannot tell you what's on Cardinal Law's calendar.
I can tell you all the cardinals planned to be here, but
many had other obligations."
Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Law, said, "The
cardinal said he had helped in preparing the communiqué,
and so, due to the late hour, it was not necessary for him
to participate in any press conference."
"There was no significance to his not being there," Ms.
Behind closed doors, the cardinals who wrote the closing
statement debated whether to release the sympathetic letter
to American priests, officials said. Some cardinals feared
that this would send the wrong message, again focusing on
the hardships experienced by priests as a result of the
scandals, rather than the suffering of victims of abuse.
It was not clear which cardinals argued against releasing
the letter. The principal authors of the two documents were
Cardinals McCarrick and Stafford, along with Cardinal Dario
Castrillon Hoyos, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for
Clergy, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, who is Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger's deputy at the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Castrillon has strongly supported a policy that
protects an accused priest's right to due process.
In addition to sympathizing with the priests' burden, the
letter contained an apology: "We regret that episcopal
oversight has not been able to preserve the church from
The meetings that wrapped up on Wednesday were called on
short notice to give Vatican officials a better idea of the
crisis in the American church, and to give American
officials guidance on how to proceed as bishops try to
adopt national protocols to prevent clerical sexual abuse.
They plan to adopt the protocols at their meeting in Dallas
The document released on Wednesday night said this week's
discussions had "reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy
as a gift of God to the church." The cardinals rejected the
idea that there was a link between the sexual abuse cases
and mandatory celibacy.
The document also suggested that officials had decided that
dissent from Catholic moral teaching was an underlying
cause of the scandals, and it proposed that priests
"publicly reprimand individuals who spread dissent."
It outlined a plan to crack down on screening and training
in seminaries. Although the document said only that such
measures were needed to emphasize the teaching of "Catholic
moral doctrine," it was clear from earlier comments that at
least some of the cardinals were concerned about the
"homosexual atmosphere" of seminaries.
It also called for a national day of prayer and penance for
the American church.
Even after all the discussion of the depth of the crisis,
the document seemed to go back and forth on the scope of
"Even if the cases of true pedophilia on the part of
priests and religious are few, all the participants
recognized the gravity of the problem," it said. "In the
meeting, the quantitative terms of the problem were
discussed, since the statistics are not very clear in this
regard. Attention was drawn to the fact that almost all the
cases involved adolescents and therefore were not cases of
The immediate reaction from some victims and their families
was one of disappointment.
Paula Ford, the mother of an abuse victim in Boston, said
she watched the news conference on television. "I see them
all sitting up there and they're laughing," Ms. Ford said.
"And I'm thinking, `What's wrong with this picture?' I
don't think anything has been accomplished. I'm very
disappointed, but I can't say I'm surprised."
George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer and the
pope's American biographer, criticized Wednesday night's
presentation, but said the proposals themselves were sound.
"What counts is the statement, not the incredibly inept
presentation of it," Mr. Weigel said. "People are
misreading this. This is zero tolerance for pedophiles and
serial abusers. The only open question is what you do about
one-time falls from grace."
Indeed, the question of how to deal with old cases was not
mentioned in the document, and there is no consensus over
how to handle these cases. But this is a major issue since
most of the cases that have caused the recent scandals stem
from abuse long ago.
The document did not mention the idea, much discussed this
week, of having more lay people involved in reviewing abuse
Cardinal McCarrick expressed surprise when asked why there
was no such mention of laity in the final document. "We had
it in there last night, but words are in and words are
out," he said. "We certainly want to tell the laity they
must have a role."
Bishop Gregory emphasized that the document was just "a
skeletal outline" of proposals to prevent future problems,
and that many details still needed to be worked out.
Asked why it had taken so much longer than expected to
hammer out even the skeletal outline, Bishop Gregory said:
"Bishops like to wordsmith. There's a desire to say things
"Even a priest who offends still enjoys rights," he added.
"We want to move expeditiously but correctly." He also
insisted that the distinction the document made between
serial and nonserial offenders did not undercut the
zero-tolerance policy as it pertained to future cases.
The church officials were also asked whether the meetings
had affected Cardinal Law's future as he prepares to return
Bishop Gregory said: "The situation regarding Cardinal Law
is a matter that belongs exclusively to the Holy Father and
Cardinal Law. I have no idea what individual bishops around
that table might have thought."
The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, was asked if
the pope supported Cardinal Law, and he replied: "I cannot
say that. I don't have any information."
Cardinal Stafford said there were "other ways of atonement
that could be even more demanding" than resignation. "We've
called for a day of repentance and prayer."