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Head of Catholic bishops' conference defends policy on abusive priests
By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, 09/27/02
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also told The Associated Press that those who have attacked the policy as a public relations ploy are wrong. The bishops have responded to the problem of molesters in the clergy with steps grounded in Catholic teaching, he said.
"I am very proud of my brother bishops in the seriousness and in the level of commitment that they have demonstrated to enacting the charter," Gregory said.
The policy directs bishops to remove guilty clergy from all church work and, in some cases, the priesthood altogether. It also includes provisions that aim to make bishops more accountable for how they handle molestation claims against priests.
A survey the bishops released last week said nearly all 195 U.S. dioceses were implementing the policy, although victims groups said they had evidence 13 were not.
Gregory said he had no word on whether the Holy See would approve the plan, which U.S. bishops overwhelmingly endorsed three months ago at a meeting in Dallas. The bishops need the Vatican's authorization to give the policy the power of church law in the United States.
A senior Vatican official, speaking to the AP this week on condition of anonymity, said Rome is leaning toward accepting the reforms on an experimental basis.
If the Vatican does decide on conditional approval, Gregory said bishops should press ahead with implementing the policy until final authorization is given.
"Provisional approval ought to be interpreted as approval," Gregory said. "It would seem to me a provisional approval also carries with it the responsibility to act."
Gregory also defended the work of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, whom the bishop appointed as chairman of the National Review Board which evaluates whether dioceses are meeting the new standards.
Keating has angered some church leaders by suggesting that parishioners who disagree with how their bishops handle abuse should withhold contributions and switch churches.
Gregory, head of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., said Keating has provided "strong leadership" but made the remarks "as an individual offering an opinion in response to questions" beyond the scope of the review board.
Some priests and church leaders have also complained that the policy violates the due process rights of priests -- an argument Gregory rejected -- and failed to set standards for evaluating whether abuse claims are credible.
Gregory said he did not see a need for a rewrite to spell out an evaluation policy: Dioceses will be able to get guidance on the issue from the bishops' newly created Office for Child and Youth Protection. A director of that office is expected to be named soon, perhaps within weeks, Gregory said.
Addressing the debate within the church over whether there's a connection between homosexuality and the abuse crisis, Gregory said he is "not willing to say there is a definite, unbreakable link."
Most of the molestation victims are adolescent boys, leading some to blame gays for the scandal. Clinicians say there is no credible evidence that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to abuse children.
"How strong a link is there?" Gregory said. "I think we need to get more professional opinion."
Gregory's next trip to the Vatican is set for next month and a national meeting of the bishops is scheduled for Nov. 11 in Washington. Church leaders are expected to devote a significant part of the Washington gathering to discussing the policy.
"I think the Catholic bishops of the United States are very serious about addressing this issue," Gregory said. "Their support for me has been just extraordinary ... that support and trust give me the energy to carry on."
AP religion writer Richard N. Ostling contributed to this report.