Pope Offers Apology to Victims of Sex Abuse by Priests
April 24, 2002
By MELINDA HENNEBERGER
New York Times
ROME, April 23 - Pope John Paul II opened meetings today
with American cardinals on clerical sex scandals with a
strongly worded apology to victims. But he sent conflicting
signals on a proposed zero-tolerance policy for priests who
"People need to know that there is no place in the
priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the
young," the pope said in his most explicit speech on the
topic. He said such sexual abuse is "by every standard
wrong and is rightly considered a crime by society."
"It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God," the pope
But he also seemed to suggest that offending priests might
deserve a second chance, saying, "We cannot forget the
power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to
turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the
depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary
The pope made his remarks to 12 United States cardinals who
traveled here this week for two days of meetings that they
hope will help restore trust in a church thrown into crisis
by sexual abuse scandals and by the disclosures that some
church officials did little to protect parishioners from
In his speech, the pope seemed acutely aware of the damage
that had been done. "To the victims and their families,
wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of
solidarity and concern," he said.
Although the meeting was closed to reporters, the Vatican
released the text of the speech. American church officials
discussed it with the news media later. One official said
that the pope had greeted each cardinal by name and that he
had left after the speech.
After the meeting, which included other Vatican leaders,
several American cardinals said they were not sure how to
interpret the remarks, particularly as they applied to a
proposal that would automatically bar priests accused of
sex abuse from the ministry.
"It isn't clear to me" whether the pope was saying he
endorsed the zero-tolerance policy, Cardinal Francis E.
George of Chicago said. "He says there's no place in the
priesthood for those who harm the young, but also speaks of
conversion. So I'm not sure where that leaves us on zero
tolerance, and there is no consensus" among bishops.
Several Americans cited the difficulty of applying a
zero-tolerance policy, particularly given the emphasis on
the possibility of redemption.
Cardinal George described the tone of the first session as
"very serious, even somber."
At meetings that continue on Wednesday, American bishops
are looking to John Paul and other top Vatican officials
for guidance as they draft national protocols on how
dioceses can prevent abuse. They will have lunch with the
pope on Wednesday, hope to draw up a working list of
proposals by the end of the day, and intend to approve the
guidelines at their national meeting in June in Dallas.
As expected, church leaders addressed a number of sensitive
topics today, including the role of homosexuals in the
priesthood and Catholic seminaries.
"People mentioned problems in society," Cardinal Theodore
E. McCarrick of Washington said. "One was sexual
permissiveness. One was homosexuality. One was lack of
Celibacy was a central focus, Cardinal George said, "not in
questioning the rule for the church, but asking how can we
At a briefing after the meeting, the head of the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton D.
Gregory, talked of his concern about the large number of
gay men in the priesthood.
"One of the difficulties we do face in seminary life or
recruitment is made possible when there does exist a
homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexual
men think twice" about entering because they fear
harassment, Bishop Gregory said. "It is an ongoing struggle
to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by
There is no clear consensus on whether homosexuals should
be ordained or whether homosexuality is linked to the
current scandals, in which many victims are boys.
Cardinal McCarrick said the crucial issue was celibacy,
whatever a priest's orientation.
Cardinal George, on the other hand, seemed to draw a
distinction not only between priests who prey on children
serially as opposed to those who pursue sexually mature
minors in a single instance, but also between those who
make advances toward boys as opposed to girls.
Referring to John J. Geoghan, a former Boston priest
accused of abusing near 200 boys over 30 years, Cardinal
George said, "There is a difference between a moral monster
like Geoghan and an individual who, perhaps under the
influence of alcohol," engages in inappropriate behavior
with "a 16- or 17-year-old young woman who returns his
Last week, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles raised
the expectations of many American Catholics by saying that
he intended to bring up whether women should be ordained
and whether priests should be allowed to marry.
Those issues were not raised today, and they will not be,
as it turns out. In an interview today, Cardinal Mahony
said that he not only had not mentioned them in the
meetings, but that he also did not intend to.
Asked about having raised the hopes of some Catholics only
to disappoint them, the cardinal said it was lay people who
would be raising the issue, not at these meetings,
obviously, but at a conference in his archdiocese next
In more general terms, though, he said: "I'm for discussion
of anything within the church. We've had a married clergy
since Day 1, and the question is whether that needs to be
revisited and expanded."
Cardinal Mahony also said neither he nor anyone else at the
meeting had raised the issue of whether Cardinal Bernard F.
Law of Boston should resign. In a possible effort to shore
up support among fellow cardinals, Cardinal Law apologized
to them on Monday night at a closed-door meeting.
"He said if he had not made some terrible mistakes we would
not be here," Cardinal George recounted. "He did not speak
about resignation, and nobody asked him about it."
Nor will anyone else ask at this point, Cardinal McCarrick
said. "We've passed that point in the discussions," he
said. "The time for that would have been at the beginning.
We're over that."
On Monday, The Los Angeles Times quoted an anonymous
American cardinal as saying he and several others would
push Cardinal Law to resign at the meetings. Other American
cardinals also suggested on Monday that cardinals seemed
split on the issue, though several said today that there
now appeared to be no move to take up the issue this week.
Cardinal Mahony is the lone American cardinal who has in
the past been openly critical of Cardinal Law's handling of
abuse cases. When asked in an interview today whether he
was the cardinal quoted in his hometown newspaper, Cardinal
"I don't know where that's coming from. These `highly
placed sources say' stories always scare me."
"I would be the last one" to push for his resignation, he
said of Cardinal Law, adding:
"I am 3,000 miles away from Boston. Decisions about his
future are completely out of my hands."
Several people at the meeting said the pope's message came
through forcefully in his speech.
"I never heard him speak in such strong terms condemning
sex abuse of minors by the clergy," Cardinal Anthony J.
Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said. "He had some pretty strong
words about the clergy."
John Paul also made clear that he saw the problem in part
as a crisis of leadership. "Because of the great harm done
by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed
with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which
the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this
matter," the pope said.
He also called sexual abuse "a grave symptom of a crisis"
that affects society as a whole.
"It is a deep-seated crisis of sexual morality, even of
human relationships, and its prime victims are the family
and the young," he said. "In addressing the problem of
abuse with clarity and determination, the church will help
society to understand and deal with the crisis in its
Cardinals said they did not feel scolded by the pope, but
were clear that the Vatican officials were listening to
Americans and would expect them to solve their own
"He's not happy that we made the mistakes, but he
understands how we could have arrived at them," Cardinal
McCarrick said. "Now it's our responsibility to put this
spiritual message from him into practice. The holy father
has said to the bishops, `O.K., now do something.' "
German Church to Study Guidelines
BERLIN, April 23 -
Catholic bishops here agreed today to form a commission to
study guidelines on clergy sex abuse of minors. The German
church has left it up to each diocese to deal with priests
accused of molestation and has no national data on