American bishops end sex abuse conference on muddled note

 At the end of their two-day meeting with the Pope and other top Vatican officials on how to prevent clerical sex abuse of children, American cardinals issued an inconclusive statement. A news conference last night, began two and a half hours late and was only attended by two out of the twelve American cardinals. Officials explained that this was because the others had further engagements and were unable to change their plans when the schedule fell behind. Only Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Stafford, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Laity, were there. Final guidelines will be hammered out when the bishops meet in Dallas in June. Last night the bishops' document stated that church leaders wanted to find a way to dismiss a priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." It said there should be another process for dismissing priests in "cases which are not notorious" and might be less clear-cut. It also called for a national day of prayer. Critics have said the recommendations are much weaker than the zero-tolerance policy promised by some cardinals hours earlier. On Tuesday, Cardinal McCarrick of Washington had told reporters that the Pope had clearly paved the way for a one-strike-and-you're-out policy for new cases of abuse by priests. In addition to the proposals for removing priests, the cardinals also drafted a letter to be sent to priests in the United States, expressing sympathy and support "through these troubled times." "We know the heavy burden of sorrow and shame that you are bearing because some have betrayed the grace of ordination by abusing those entrusted to their care," the letter said. On his way out of the closing session, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said church officials wanted to find a streamlined administrative process for dismissing abusive priests, but he added that there was much concern for the rights of the accused. The Pope "is sensitive to the misuse of the administrative process," Cardinal George said, referring to John Paul's life in Poland under communism. When asked specifically why Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who has been under pressure to resign over his handling of cases, was not present, Bishop Gregory said: "Originally, when we thought we would complete our work earlier, we thought all our cardinals would be here. Some made plans and some could not get out of those plans." Asked what plans Cardinal Law could have had that were more important than addressing the scandals, Bishop Gregory said: "I cannot tell you what's on Cardinal Law's calendar. I can tell you all the cardinals planned to be here, but many had other obligations." Bishop Gregory emphasized that the document was just "a skeletal outline" of proposals to prevent future problems, and that many details still needed to be worked out. Asked why it had taken so much longer than expected to hammer out the skeletal outline, Bishop Gregory said: "Bishops like to wordsmith. There's a desire to say things carefully." "Even a priest who offends still enjoys rights," he added. "We want to move expeditiously but correctly." He also insisted that the distinction the document made between serial and nonserial offenders did not undercut the zero-tolerance policy as it pertained to future cases. The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, was asked if the Pope supported Cardinal Law, and he replied: "I cannot say that. I don't have any information." George Weigel, the Pope's American biographer, criticized the bishops' presentation, but said their proposals were sound. "What counts is the statement, not the incredibly inept presentation of it," Mr. Weigel said. "People are misreading this. This is zero tolerance for paedophile and serial abusers. The only open question is what you do about one-time falls from grace." Victims of child abuse and their families across America have expressed anger and disappointment at the meeting. "I cannot believe they are acting so blindly" the mother of one abuse victim told reporters in Boston. For more information on the American Bishops' reponse to child sex abuse - visit their website at:

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