Pope, U.S. cardinal discuss abuse scandal

With his papacy just minutes old and the faithful in St. Peter's Square still unaware of his selection, Pope Benedict XVI greeted Chicago Cardinal Francis George in English and told him he was focused on the issue that has engrossed the church's American leadership for three years - sexual abuse by priests.

The exchange was brief, George said yesterday, and the substance of the new pope's message - that he favors re-approval of a church policy on abuse set to expire this year - was modest.

But abuse victims, and groups that have advocated church reform since the abuse scandals became public three years ago, said they were encouraged yesterday. By addressing quickly and directly an issue of foremost interest to the American arm of the church, the new pope seems to have shown a sharper interest in the matter than he had when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, they said.

"I'd like to tell you I'm optimistic, but let's say I'm happy that he seems to have given an indication that he understands the gravity of the problem," said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call To Action, an American organization that advocates reform of the Catholic church.

As a Vatican official with close ties to Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger was criticized by victims' advocacy groups for resisting efforts to investigate a Mexican priest accused of molesting boys in the 1970s. Ratzinger helped reopen the investigation of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado late last year, but only once the priest - founder of an order called the Legion of Christ and twice honored by the late pope - was ready to retire.

And two years ago Ratzinger noted that "less than 1 percent" of American priests were guilty of abuse, and he blamed the media for blowing the scandal out of proportion - a position that angered some victims of abuse who saw it as an attempt to trivialize the issue.

But by agreeing to reauthorize the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a law written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that gives American church officials broad powers to punish priests without going through the lengthy process at the Vatican, he has sided more firmly with advocates for church reform.

The anti-abuse law, implemented at the height of the abuse scandal and set to expire last month before being temporarily extended, has not been popular with some church officials, who think it amounts to a presumption of guilt for accused priests. The Vatican asked for changes in the original policy that U.S. bishops adopted in 2002, saying it did not provide priests with adequate due process rights.

But while few expect the church to do away with the charter altogether, some groups have feared Vatican officials might try to weaken the document, and they were heartened by Pope Benedict's apparent endorsement.

"It would be pretty unusual for a brand new pope to immediately take a radical step backward on such a controversial crisis," said Peter Isely, a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement released by the group. "But it would have been very discouraging if his first action about the sex cover-up scandal would have been to retreat."

George said yesterday that he spoke with Ratzinger a few days before the papal election and that the then-cardinal indicated he wants to preserve the abuse law. When George kissed the new pope's ring inside the conclave on Tuesday, Pope Benedict reminded him about their discussion, he said.

"He remembered our conversation and said he would attend to that, so he immediately zeroed in on our conversation," George said.

Leaders in Vatican City have played a limited role in the abuse scandal - the church's 4,900 bishops throughout the world are more responsible for vetting personnel and investigating complaints - but Ratzinger was more closely involved than most. As the top enforcer of church doctrine under Pope John Paul, he was tasked with reviewing many of the abuse cases, which led to more than 700 American clergymen being dismissed.

And despite some criticism of Ratzinger's early involvement, activists don't generally expect the Vatican to change its approach to the issue of sexual abuse by priests, which arose during a period of waning health for Pope John Paul.

"I think it's really starting to become apparent who was running the Catholic church for the last three or four years," Pieczynski said. "I don't expect much of a change."