Pope Targets ‘Scandal’ of Sex Abuse by Clergy


Pope John Paul II, reflecting growing alarm within the Roman Catholic Church over sexual abuse by clergy, has taken the first step toward changes that could make it easier to defrock offending priests, the U.S. Catholic Conference disclosed Monday.

In an unprecedented letter to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops decrying the “scandal,” the pontiff said he has named a committee of experts from the Vatican and the United States to study the issue. A spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference, which carries out the policies of American bishops, said the committee will look for ways to speed the removal of priests.

“I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt” by the sexual misconduct of some clerics, the Pope said in a letter dated June 11. The letter was prefaced with a quotation from Matthew 18:7, “Woe to the world because of scandals!”


It was the second time in three weeks that the Pope has spoken out on the volatile issue that has not only rocked the Roman Catholic Church, but other Christian denominations and some Jewish congregations as well.

But the letter was the first time that John Paul II has addressed the entire U.S. Catholic hierarchy. His letter comes after renewed reports of sexual abuse by priests and, in one case, by an archbishop. There has also been a growing chorus of criticism from victims and others, some of whom have been critical of the Pope for not speaking out.

Recently, for example, conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. scolded the Pope in print. “Why hasn’t the Pope thundered against the commission of a crime that disgusts the moral community and profanes his church?” Buckley wrote.

In recent private meetings with the Pope, groups of U.S. bishops have repeatedly raised the issue. Three weeks ago, the Pope told a group of visiting U.S. bishops that sexual abuse by priests had become “a public scandal.” The Pope said sex scandals had undermined peoples’ trust in the church and damaged priestly morale.

The move Monday by the Pope was welcomed by Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the U.S. bishops conference. “We join in his call to prayer, and we will use the means at our disposal to reverse this scandal,” Keeler said.

In Chicago, the founder and president of a nationwide group of sexual abuse victims said she hoped that the Pope’s letter was evidence that he was “finally taking notice.”

“My initial response is that it’s clear and simple to survivors that child molesters do not belong in the priesthood,” said Barbara Blaine of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “We haven’t seen a lot of evidence from the Vatican that the Pope is that concerned about America’s children that have been abused by its ordained leaders.”

Father Andrew M. Greeley, a sociologist and author, estimated that at least 2,500 priests nationwide have victimized 100,000 children in the past 20 years. Jason Berry, author of a book on the issue, has estimated that the church spent $400 million between 1984 an 1992 to settle cases involving 400 priests.

Last week, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sets policies for the U.S. church, named a new committee of its own headed by Bishop John F. Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., to develop ways for stepping up the U.S. church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is a member of the U.S. panel.

The committee appointed by the Pope will examine canon law to determine if removal of offending priests can be speeded up and the circumstances for dismissal expanded. U.S. bishops have urgently called for such a study.

Currently, a priest can be removed only by the Vatican and only if the victim was under 16 when molested, said William Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington. A priest cannot be removed if the offense occurred more than five years before it was reported, or if a psychologist or other health care professional concludes that the priest was not fully responsible for his actions because of his psychological or emotional state.

“That’s what that committee can look at, whether something can be done to improve upon the situation,” Ryan said in a telephone interview.

There was no immediate indication of how long the committee may take to develop proposals. The committee members are expected to be announced later this week.

As recently as three months ago, the Vatican’s highest court overruled a decision by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh to remove a priest accused of molesting a teen-age boy. The Vatican said Wuerl did not observe procedure.

Last March, Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe resigned after five women said they had had sexual relations with him. Three years earlier, Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta resigned after a reported two-year affair with a woman. Other cases have involved minors.

Recalling the words of Jesus that it would be better to be cast into the sea than to cause scandal, the Pope described “the vast majority” of bishops and priests as “devoted followers of Christ.”

At the same time, the Pope criticized the media for treating moral evil as “an occasion for sensationalism.”