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As nation discusses pedophilia, even pope admits it's a problem.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Pope John Paul II, in a statement released June 21, spoke out publicly for the first time on the hemorrhaging crisis of U.S. clergy sex abuse, saying to the bishops: "I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt by these misdeeds."

The pontiff said he had become aware in recent months in conversations with visiting bishops how much, "together with all the faithful, (they) are suffering because of certain cases of scandal given by members of the clergy."

The statement, which announced the formation of a joint committee of Vatican and U.S. experts to examine how church law can better deal with the problem, came eight years to the month after clergy sex abuse cases first began to draw national media attention (NCR, June 7, 1985).

The pope's statement spoke of the special gravity of sin that gives scandal to children; it also attacked the media for sensationalizing these misdeeds and called for prayer as a path of reconciliation.

The pope's words were met with relief in some circles, skepticism in others. Some U.S. bishops had been urging the Vatican to consider changes in canon codes to allow quicker dismissal of offenders. Some critics noted the pope's first utterance on the crisis of clergy child sex abuse came less than two months before he is to come to the United States for a World Youth Day celebration in Denver.

Wrote the pope: "The gospel word woe has a special meaning" when applied to sins with children. He quoted Jesus' words in Matthew's gospel: "For him who gives scandal (to children) it would be better to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

The statement was released less than a week after it was distributed in closed-door sessions to the U.S. bishops who were meeting June 17-19 in New Orleans. During that meeting, the bishops dealt with the pedophilia issue for the first time in a public session; they had discussed it at four earlier national gatherings in executive session.

At the outset of the New Orleans gathering, Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the formation of a special committee of U.S. bishops to study the issue of clergy sex abuse within the church in the wider society. The committee is to make recommendations to the bishops about how to better respond to the plaguing problem.

Experts say more than 400 U.S. priests or brothers have been publicly linked with child sexual abuse; the cases extend into the thousands. Some figure the church has paid more than $400 million in settlements. And many cases are still pending.

Critics last week expressed skepticism the new committees would change much or get to the heart of the problem. They argue the sex abusers are fostered in part by what they term a "clerical culture," an all-male, celibate priesthood not on the discussion table. Defenders, meanwhile, counter that sex abuse critics are merely using the issue to push for change in church structures.

Referring to the pope's statement last week, sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley said, "It is really one more case of too little too late. I don't think it makes any difference in terms of public opinion."

Said psychologist Eugene Kennedy, who has worked with the bishops in matters of clergy sexual misconduct: "We are no closer to what must be the goal of any serious examination, that is, an understanding how and why this has occurred. This is not an airborne disease. Until we grasp its psychological nature, its origin, and the environmental conditions of the church that have apparently sustained it, we are amiss".

At the bishops' meeting, Keeler appointed Bishop John F. Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., to head the newly formed committee on sexual abuse. Kinney seemed to acknowledge a certain public skepticism, saying the establishment of a committee "may seem neither a daring nor an original thing to do. So I want to say very clearly that the significance of this committee is that it provides the conference with a group accountable to offer it recommendations for decisive action on the sole problem of sexual abuse."

The Vatican, meanwhile, is after many months of inaction, acceding to U.S. episcopal pressures by looking again at canon law. It provides penalties up to dismissal from the priesthood if a cleric sexually molests someone under 16. However, due process and other church law requirements make it difficult to apply the penalty of dismissal or laicization when a priest resists it -- especially if a psychological illness, such as pedophilia, is seen as diminishing a priest's personal responsibility for his actions.

The church's five-year statute of limitations, for example, prevents prosecution in a church court in many cases under consideration in U.S. courts.

Speaking to the pedophilia crisis earlier in the month to U.S. bishops in Rome, the pope said celibacy needs to be upheld, saying it is "profoundly linked" with a priest's sharing in Christ's care for the church. He said celibacy is "not just passing a legal norm." He also urged the bishops to be more demanding in the selection of seminary candidates.

Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, author of A Secret World, a book on celibacy and the priesthood, termed the pope's announcement last week "a start." He called it "the first step out of denial."

Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, SNAP, a Chicago-based survivors group, said she was "glad the pope is beginning to address this issue."

One of the speakers at the New Orleans meeting was Franciscan Fr. Canice Connors, 58, a psychologist who directs St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., which treats child molesters. The priest-psychologist presented the bishops with a list of recommendations drawn up by a think tank of some 30 therapists, theologians, canon lawyers, victims' representatives and others who met last February for three days in St. Louis. Key recommendations included:

* Reaching out to victims with pastoral and psychological care;

* Stiffening seminary standards with psychological screening;

* Forbidding the return of molesters to ministry with access to minors;

* Authorizing a task force to conduct regional hearings on the problem to produce a detailed report.

Nine activists from SNAP were in New Orleans in an effort to get bishops to sign a covenant, agreeing not to countersue victims or release personal information about them.

Last fall, for example, in response to a Philadelphia suit filed by a man accusing a priest of abusing him as a child, church attorneys countersued his parents for negligently entrusting their child to the care of the priest, whose abusive activity the church denied.

In the question period after Connors spoke, Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua expressed concern that church leaders were being unfairly maligned by media reports. "I've never covered up and I don't know any bishop who has covered up," said Bevilacqua.

Several hours before the bishops' session, nine survivors -- eight women and one man -- held a news conference, each one giving a terse, chilling account of how she or he was abused as a child. Carol Castagnos, for example, spoke of being raped, at age 10, in the rectory of a local church by a priest she said archdiocesan officials refused to help her find.

When Connors began his speech, SNAP activists sought entrance to the convention floor. That part of the Hyatt Regency hotel was heavily guarded, as past NCCB conventions have drawn militant gays, abortion rights and other protesters known for trying to enter restricted areas. As a policeman led Blaine away, she wept, with reporters looking on. NCCB press officials found a room for her group to watch closed-circuit TV coverage.

The most impassioned episcopal plea during the gathering came from Kinney, who said, "I want to make sure that all of us bishops understand the depth and the seriousness, the pain and the agony of this problem and why it strikes at the very heart of the church's trust level and credibility level."

He said people's "shock and outrage" does not come primarily from priests violating their own teachings on sexual morality, "as serious as that is."

"By now, I believe our people understand clearly the clay feet of the ministers of the church," Kinney said. "It is not the sexuality at all. It is rather the dynamic of the misuse of power, domination and the violation of trust between pastor and parishioner, priest and child, teacher and student, counselor and counselee."

The other bishop-members of the special committee on sexual abuse include Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bishops John Favalora of Tampa-St. Petersburg, David Fellhauer of Victoria, Harry Flynn of Lafayette in Louisiana and Terry Steib of Memphis.

Kinney termed the mandate to the committee "expansive": "What can the National Conference of Catholic Bishops do at this moment, pastorally, to stand beside the victims and their families; how to aid bishops in working with priests who have been abusers; how to strengthen screening of candidates for the priesthood and the ministries; how to assess the risks/possibilities of any future assignments for priest-perpetrators; what about other church employees and church volunteers and this issue; what can the church share from its experience with our society about this horrendous and terrifying problem; and finally, what can be done to lift up the drooping morale of priests -- even of some of our bishops?"

Kinney said he is beginning discussions with victims of clergy sex abuse.
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Author:Fox, Thomas C.; Berry, Jason
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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