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U.S. bishops seem prepared to apply 'zero tolerance' in the future, but what about priests who abused youths in the past?

Posted: Friday, May 03, 2002

Zero tolerance. One strike and you're out. America's Roman Catholic bishops are using prosecutors' catch phrases these days as they debate the best way to put a stop to the waves of clergy sex abuse scandals.

The trouble is, they don't agree on what those slogans really mean.

The bishops will gather for a crucial meeting in Dallas next month, where they'll try to agree on a national church policy for handling sex abuse charges.

If they succeed, they're almost certain to ask the Vatican to take the rare step of making the policy binding on all U.S. bishops. Disciplining of local priests is usually left to each bishop to handle.

In the weeks leading up to that meeting, bishops are pondering just what the nationwide policy should contain -- and zero tolerance of sex abusers is the most divisive sticking point.

Actually, there are two separate issues: old cases and new ones.

The American bishops seem all but united that, in the future, a priest deemed guilty of even one instance of molesting a minor would be out of the active priesthood, either through permanent suspension or out-and-out defrocking. The Milwaukee archdiocese last week joined those that have already approved such a policy.

U.S. Protestant churches generally apply a one-strike standard when their clergy admit sexual misconduct, and it has spared them the parishioner fury the Catholic bishops now confront.

The crunch comes with old, or ex post facto cases -- priests who were considered guilty of molestation in past years but not defrocked by their bishops.

What about, say, a priest who committed one offense decades ago, repented, underwent required treatment and never abused anyone again? Should he be ousted, too? What about the Christian values of forgiveness, repentance and redemption?

Following their Rome summit with Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials, it is clear the U.S. cardinals and other American church leaders have yet to find common ground.

Among those acknowledging the Americans don't agree are Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., vice president of the U.S. bishops' conference (who is in line to become president of the U.S. hierarchy in 2004). McCarrick and Skylstad served on the panel that wrote the final communique from the Vatican meeting.

''We should be a compassionate, forgiving and reconciling church,'' Skylstad said, but ''we have to be careful about misdirected compassion. Some of that has backfired in the past.''

McCarrick predicted the result of the June meeting will be ''absolute zero tolerance for the future'' and ''almost zero tolerance for the past.''

Remarks by some of the other American cardinals who endorsed ''zero tolerance'' did not make clear whether they think it should apply to past cases.

Apart from their personal views, the Americans also don't agree on what Pope John Paul II thinks.

The pope told last week's visitors, ''People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.'' However, he also said, ''We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion,'' which ''can work extraordinary change'' in sinners.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles believes the pope's first statement settles the matter. ''Zero tolerance is the only answer. There aren't any half measures,'' he said upon his return home.

Others aren't so sure. The pope's words could mean a full ban, past and future, but could conceivably permit continued priesthood for a past molester who has maintained a clean record since. ''You can make a case for either position,'' New York's Cardinal Edward Egan said.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who actively worked last Sunday's talk shows, is among those who think that, if children can be protected, then zero tolerance is not an open-and-shut question.

''If people want one strike and you're out, we'll have to do that,'' George said when he arrived home. ''Personally, I don't think we should do that without asking a few more questions.''

''This is going to be a national policy, so we are going to have to live with this a long time,'' he cautioned.

The simple solution would have been for the assembled Americans to ask the pope what he meant, either at their formal meeting with him or at a gathering over lunch the following day. But apparently the format -- or papal protocol -- did not allow for clarifications.

George said he would be listening carefully to parishioners' opinions. But they may send a mixed message, too, which is underscored by what happened to Bishop Joseph Gerry of Portland, Maine.

Parishioners at St. Joseph's Church in Ellsworth, Maine, were informed at Mass last Saturday that their priest, the Rev. Leo James Michaud, had been quickly suspended after accusations he abused a teen-age boy in Washington, D.C., 25 years ago.

Instead of gratitude for decisive leadership, the bishop now faces some hostility in a diocese where resident priests can be hard to come by.

''I'm deeply grieved by the loss to the community,'' said one St. Joseph's parishioner. Another charged angrily that Michaud had been made a ''whipping boy'' for the church's problems.

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On the Net:

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops site (with documents from Vatican meeting): http://www.usccb.org



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