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Pope Says Abuse in Sex Scandal is 'rightly considered a crime by society'

Resignation of Law not discussed at meetings

By Victor L. Simpson, Associated Press, 04/23/02

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II told American church leaders Tuesday that there was no place in the priesthood "for those who would harm the young," saying sex abuse by priests in the United States was both a sin and a crime.

U.S. cardinals said the pontiff backed a "swift process" to remove priests involved in abuse. But they said there was no discussion of the possible resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of mishandling sex abuse cases.

Addressing U.S. cardinals and bishops at the start of an extraordinary two-day meeting, John Paul made his strongest statement since allegations of sex abuse by priests began pouring out in January, shaking the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God," the pontiff said. "To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."

"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," he said, according to the official English text of the speech released by the Vatican.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the subject of Law's possible resignation was not raised in Tuesday's session or in a private meeting of the prelates the night before.

But George said Law admitted to the group that "if he hadn't made some terrible mistakes, we probably all wouldn't be here."

Law is under pressure over his handling of abuse cases -- especially those of two known abusers in the Boston archdiocese who were moved from parish to parish. He said last week that he would not resign, following a secret visit to the Vatican.

The American cardinals and Vatican officials were summoned by the pope to find ways to stem the scandal that has shaken the confidence of the faithful, led to the resignation of one bishop, and cost the church millions of dollars in legal settlements. Church officials have been accused of covering up misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles also said Law's resignation was not discussed. But he said the Vatican meeting would bring about "greater standards and accountability, even such things as national boards and review teams to make sure that ... all of us, priests, bishops, cardinals, all of us are held accountable."

Asked if the Vatican had committed to a policy of zero-tolerance toward abusive clergy, Mahony said, "We got that commitment from the Holy Father."

Mahony told ABC's "Good Morning America" that Vatican officials promised that there would be a "swift process" that would "ensure our people, especially our young people, that no abuser remains active in the priesthood."

John Paul acknowledged the extent to which the scandal has hurt the American church. "The church itself is viewed as distressed and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter," he said.

He said "bishops and superiors are concerned above all else with the spiritual good of souls" and asked Catholics to "stay close to their priests and bishops and support them with their prayers."

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said Law should stay and insisted that the agenda here boils down to one thing.

"We've got to make sure that people can trust their priests," he said. "We are here to find out what we can do, in concert with the Holy See, to create an environment that is safe for children."

Since revelations began emerging early this year, the pope's only previous public reference to the issue came in a pre-Easter letter to priests March 21. He said a "dark shadow of suspicion" had been cast over priests "by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."

The Vatican underscored the importance of this meeting Monday by announcing that much of its top brass will participate, adding Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who functions as prime minister of the Holy See under the pope, along with leaders of four other Vatican agencies.

Underscoring the urgency here, the U.S. conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., told a media briefing that the time had passed for apologies. "We're in the season for action," he said.

The ongoing Law saga aside, differences could emerge among bishops -- and with the Vatican -- over whether homosexuals should be absolutely barred from the priesthood and whether to relax the Catholic rule that priests be celibate.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, reported that some participants will push the Vatican to ask Law to resign.

The cardinal reportedly said senior prelates had asked him to take the Law case directly to Vatican officials close to the pope. He said he and others would do so during private meetings at the Vatican.

Law declined comment here, merely noting his Sunday remarks in Boston saying the church "must spark immediate and decisive changes."

Boston became the epicenter of the controversy in January, when published reports disclosed that Law and other church leaders had simply reassigned a priest accused of pedophilia. In recent weeks, the spotlight returned to Boston following new revelations about a priest who was allowed to continue leading local parishes despite his endorsement of sex between men and boys.

Scandals have cropped up in other countries in recent years, including Austria, Ireland, France and Australia and the pope's native Poland.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests