US cardinals reject 'zero tolerance' of sex abuse

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The Independent US

American cardinals reaching the end of their two-day crisis meeting with the Pope said last night they had agreed to streamline rules on defrocking sexually abusive priests but said the only automatic dismissals would be for "notorious" serial abusers of children.

American cardinals reaching the end of their two-day crisis meeting with the Pope said last night they had agreed to streamline rules on defrocking sexually abusive priests but said the only automatic dismissals would be for "notorious" serial abusers of children.

A much-delayed final statement stopped short of a zero-tolerance policy advocated by some of the cardinals whereby any priest caught molesting minors would be thrown out of the Church on his first offence. According to the statement, it should be up to the local bishop to decide what to do in "non-notorious" cases.

Many questions remained about the new rules ­ would the Church turn suspects over to civilian authorities, for example? ­ and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, said the statement was meant only to offer "definitive guidelines" to a conference of US bishops due to meet in Dallas in June.

The cardinals also dodged some of the most contentious issues, notably what to do about deviant priests whose activities were exposed in the past but allowed to continue even ­ in some cases ­ with the acquiescence of senior church leaders in their archdiocese.

One troubling question that went entirely unanswered was the future of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, who faces a tide of public indignation and demands for his resignation because of his failure to protect dozens of children from known paedophiles. Despite early indications that the assembled cardinals would press for his removal, Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said yesterday that the matter had been dropped from the agenda and was now one for Cardinal Law and the Pope to work out between them.

Cardinal Law was only one participant at the Vatican meetings who has been accused of hushing up the activities of child molesters. Others included Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit and Cardinal Mahony. Their participation in the discussions created an immediate conflict of interest and may have hampered the meetings' progress.

Certainly, there were signs of conflicting opinions hours before the final communiqué was released. While Cardinal McCarrick said he supported the notion of weeding out abusive priests and alerting law enforcement in future, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said he was "not so sure" about enforcing a policy of zero tolerance, and Cardinal Egan said it was important not to vilify abusive priests and give up on the possibility that they could repent and reform.

Cardinal Maida said he thought the problem was not so much paedophilia as homosexuality, and he supported conservatives who wanted to rid the Church of gay priests, even ones who maintained their celibacy.

Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles said his archdiocese had practised "zero tolerance" for years. He did not refer to the fact that he has come under heavy fire from Los Angeles prosecutors and police officials for his failure to hand over the names or case details of at least five paedophile priests in his archdiocese.

Issued alongside the communiqué was a letter from the American cardinals to their parishes, in which they apologised, though not for their own personal shortcomings. "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 said.

"We regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the Church from this scandal.''

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