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Report Criticizes U.S. Catholic Church's Policy on Child Abuse by Priests

RESPONSE: SNAP Blasts Vatican Report

By Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2004

VATICAN CITY, Feb. 23 -- A draft report released Monday by scientists commissioned by the Vatican harshly criticized as potentially dangerous the U.S. Catholic Church's policy of removing priests from the ministry for committing one act of child abuse.

The report, the result of a conference held here last April that featured eight non-Catholic experts, recommended that the so-called zero-tolerance policy be reconsidered. A Canadian expert, William Marshall, described the policy as an "abdication of responsibility" that could discourage offending clerics from seeking treatment. Moreover, he wrote, "Such a policy is certain to have disastrous consequences, including the clergy sex offender committing suicide or re-offending.

"All offending clerics should be offered treatment and then reintegrated as much as possible into the normal aspects of life."

Zero tolerance "does not function to prevent these crimes," Hans-Ludwig Kroeber, director of Berlin's Institute of Forensic Psychiatry, said at the symposium. "It is better to domesticate the dragon. If all you do is cut off its head, it will grow another."

The 220-page report, called "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," said that public opinion had put the church under pressure to move with "destructive severity."

"Although until now, the phenomenon of abuse was not always taken seriously enough, at present there is a tendency to overreact and rob accused priests of even legitimate support," the report says.

A Vatican spokesman said the findings might provide a basis for future policy. The report will be published next month and distributed within the church hierarchy and to bishops around the world. "It will be taken into consideration," said Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman.

In remarks to reporters last Friday, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, took a cautious approach to the pending report but suggested that the American bishops would likely not be swayed.

"We have given our word that we will not restore a cleric to public office even with one allegation," he said. "What to do with those individuals is still a question that needs further review. But I don't believe that the bishops of the United States at this time are willing to step back from the very strong position that we took and that we are implementing even as we speak."

The experts' recommendations come at a critical juncture for the U.S. church, which is scheduled this week to release two major studies on the sex abuse scandal, including one that will indicate what church records show about the number of priests who have committed abuse since 1950. According to a leaked draft, 4,450 priests have been accused of molesting more than 11,000 children.

In addition, the U.S. bishops conference is due this summer to review its two-year-old policy. That policy promises that no priest who has ever abused a child will be returned to ministry.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests