Bishops apologize for handling of priests' sexual abuse cases

Associated Press

NEW YORK - The Roman Catholic church needs to pick up the pieces, Cardinal Edward Egan told parishioners yesterday as bishops returned to their pulpits after passing a new mandate on dealing with pedophile priests.

Egan and other church leaders apologized to worshippers yesterday for the clergy's handling of one the worst scandals in U.S. church history.

"This is a harsh day. These are terrible times. And we are all outraged, scandalized," Egan told parishioners at St. Charles Parish on Staten Island. "We need to pick up the pieces, and we will."

The national guidelines, adopted Friday at a landmark bishops conference in Dallas, require church officials to report any allegation of a minor being abused by clergy and give the rank-and-file an unprecedented role in policing the church.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the Dallas meeting was "the most painful and difficult" of his 33 years as a priest.

"Painful though it is, I still support" the policy, Bevilacqua said during Mass at St. Denis Parish in Havertown, Pa. "I have to balance my great love for all priests with the common good of the church. That has to be the highest priority."

One aspect of the policy drawing criticism is that while past abusers will be stripped of duties, they will be allowed to remain in the priesthood.

Victim-rights groups have argued that formal defrocking is the only acceptable punishment for abusive priests.

Vatican officials, however, have questioned whether the plan to remove abusive priests from church work may go too far, said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said many in the Holy See do not understand the U.S. legal system and think that church penance is enough.

Gregory said he still is "as confident as I can be" that the Vatican will approve the policy. The process, which could take months, is necessary before the policy can become church law in the United States.

"They know the seriousness of the matter," Gregory said on NBC's Meet the Press. "They have expressed their overwhelming desire to assist us."

Many bishops returning from the conference said their dioceses had adopted sexual abuse guidelines similar to the national mandate.

New Mexico Archbishop Michael Sheehan said on Saturday that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe had served as model for the national policy. He expelled 20 priests after he took over the archdiocese in 1993 amid a sexual scandal there.

"We had here a microcosm in New Mexico of what has taken place recently in the country," he said.

In Boston, the epicenter of the turmoil rocking the church, Cardinal Bernard Law did not appear at Holy Cross Cathedral, as he had not returned from Dallas and customarily spends the summer visiting parishes.

The homily was instead delivered by a priest, the Monsignor William H. Roche, who did not discuss the bishops' meeting or the sexual abuse scandal. Outside, protesters gathered as they have done since the scandal broke in January.

Stephen Lewis, 45, of Lynn, Mass., held a sign that read "Bishops Balk, Bishops Walk." Lewis said he was abused by a priest when he was an 11-year-old altar boy.

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