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Vatican report is said to question zero-tolerance on abuse

Rehabilitation of clergy stressed in talks with panel

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican will soon publish a report about sexual abuse by clergy that draws heavily on scientific opinion, including specialists skeptical about removing from the ministry any priest who has molested a child, a psychologist who helped edit the report said.

The report grew out of a four-day symposium on pedophilia held behind closed doors at the Vatican in April.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a symposium participant, said scientific feedback will help the Vatican focus its policy toward offenders and victims.

"We're on a learning curve," said Scicluna, whose office is a key player in setting church positions on the sex abuse. Insight came, he said, on "how to secure a safer environment for young people."

During that gathering, church officials listened to and questioned therapists and other clinical specialists from the United States, Canada, and Germany. Among the issues on the agenda was how molesters might be rehabilitated.

The leader of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday the survey had to be done so the church can move beyond the abuse crisis.

"I'm not afraid," said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill. "We need this information to make sure that the steps we have taken thus far are adequate to the problem. We need to know the truth."

The report is expected to be published in the next few weeks and will be distributed to bishops' conferences worldwide, a Vatican official said Thursday on condition of anonymity.

"Most of the experts present were not sympathetic" to zero-tolerance policies that call for removing priests from the ministry when credible allegations arise, said psychologist Karl Hanson, who researches sex offenders for the Canadian government. He spoke at the symposium and was senior editor of the Vatican report.

Many dioceses say they are aggressively pursuing zero-tolerance policies after being stung by charges that church hierarchy was trying to protect abusive priests, often by shuffling them from parish to parish.

Hanson, speaking by phone from Ottawa, said several specialists told Vatican officials they objected to the "blanket and overly strong reaction."

Among those specialists was another Canadian psychologist, William Marshall, who has treated priests in his work with sex offenders. Marshall said by phone from Kingston, Ontario, that he told Vatican officials that zero-tolerance is a "disaster."

"If I kick this fellow out of the church and he loses his job, his income, his health benefits, and all of his friends . . . with no other skills to get a job, that's not the conditions" to ensure a former priest won't commit more abuse, Marshall said. "They won't get treatment."

Marshall said skeptics like himself contend that cutting men loose from the priesthood could send untreated offenders into society without any checks from the church hierarchy.

"Several American bishops and clergy came up to me at the first break to say, `That's exactly what the bishops in the US need to hear,' " Marshall said.

Catholic News Service, a news agency affiliated with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a preliminary copy of the report included a suggestion that the church and society are better off when abusive priests are kept in the priesthood but away from children.

The report is "aimed at understanding the phenomenon, its diagnosis, therapy, and how these people might be rehabilitated," said Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, another Vatican official.

Sgreccia is vice president of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, which is producing the report containing the specialists' suggestions. In a brief telephone conversation, Sgreccia said the report contains no conclusions but could prove useful to church officials who set policy.

Earlier this month, Pope John Paul II urged church officials to be fair when judging priests accused of sexual abuse but stressed that the "predominant" need was to protect the faithful.

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