|[an error occurred while processing this directive]||
Victims to meet with Roman Catholic bishops on sex abuse panel
By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, 6/12/02
DALLAS -- Victims of clerical sex abuse, once shunned for criticizing leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, were given a rare insider role Wednesday in shaping how American bishops handle errant priests.
On the eve of a critical U.S. bishops' gathering, members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and other victims met with eight bishops working on a national policy to rid the priesthood of abusers. Another session between victims and several cardinals was scheduled later.
Victims have met previously with church leaders over the years, both individually and in groups. But never has so much been at stake.
The policy -- undergoing revisions before hundreds of bishops begin debate on it Thursday -- will determine how the church hierarchy responds to abuse claims for years to come.
"We're looking for a real commitment for change of behavior," Barbara Blaine, a founder of SNAP, said in a news conference before her group's talks with church leaders.
The victims will be competing for influence with the many U.S. prelates who have suggested amendments to the proposal, which the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse made public last week. That draft, developed over several weeks, included input from at least one victim.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Wednesday church leaders were committed to leaving Dallas with a new discipline plan, but he would not discuss specifics of the proposal. As president, Gregory can only influence policy -- he can't set it himself.
Gregory said the document was meant to heal a rift with Catholics angered by the scandal, although he did not expect the crisis to be resolved when the meeting ends Saturday.
"Dallas has to be a first step, a significant first step in restoring the credibility of the bishops," he said. "Our people have to be able to say, `They get it."'
A key issue is whether to adopt zero tolerance for all abusers -- specifically whether to allow priests who molested one minor in the past, but no more than that, to stay in the clergy under tight restrictions.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said he has concluded from conversations with fellow bishops that the final policy approved Friday will most likely force out all abusers, including those with only one offense.
"We've got to come out of here with very strong zero tolerance -- past, present and future," Mahony said.
Two new polls, one by ABC News and the other released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University, each found more than 80 percent of American Catholics back Mahony's position.
SNAP has pressured the committee to approve some mechanism for disciplining bishops who fail to comply with whatever national policy is approved. Chicago's Cardinal Francis George is one of the few church leaders to publicly agree.
Cardinal Bernard Law, whose Boston Archdiocese has been the epicenter of the crisis, arrived Wednesday afternoon at the hotel where the meeting is being held, accompanied by a group of about 10 people. He smiled and shook hands with onlookers but ignored questions from reporters.
Since January, when the crisis began with the case of a pedophile clergyman in Boston, at least 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests have resigned or been suspended over sexual misconduct claims. Four bishops also have resigned, but none have left their post because they mishandled abusive clergy.
All of the nearly 400 retired and active bishops in the United States have been invited to this week's conference, but only the active prelates -- who number around 285 -- can vote on the policy.
Approval of the reforms is expected by Friday evening.