Pope John Paul II, reflecting growing alarm within the Roman Catholic Church over sexual abuse by clergy, has taken the first step that could make it easier to defrock offending priests, the U.S. Catholic Conference disclosed yesterday.
In an unprecedented letter to the nation's Roman Catholic bishops decrying the "scandal," the pontiff said that 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 who commit sexual abuse.
"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.
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 yesterday's letter was the first time that the pope 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.
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 that sex scandals had undermined peoples' trust in the church and had damaged priestly morale.
The move yesterday by the pope was welcomed by Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, the 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," Archbishop Keeler said yesterday.
In Chicago, the founder and president of a nationwide group of sexual abuse victims, said she hoped the pope's letter was evidence that he was "finally taking notice."
"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," said Barbara Blaine of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
The Rev. 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 has spent $400 million to settle cases brought against it by victims.
Last week, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sets policies for the U.S. branch of the 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.
The committee appointed by the pope will examine canon law to determine whether removing offending priests can be speeded up and the circumstances for dismissal expanded. Currently, a priest can only be removed by the Vatican and only then if the victim was under the age of 16.