Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Catholics cheer pope's statement on sex abuse

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tristate Catholics on Tuesday applauded Pope John Paul II for his strong message to American cardinals that sex abuse by priests is a crime and abusers have no place in religious life.

        “It's a historic day. They are very strong words, and (the pope) has really taken a step forward,” said Dr. Paul Knitter, a Xavier University professor and Catholic theologian. “He's not only saying, "We've got to do something about what has happened,' but he's also saying, "We've got to do something to prevent it from happening in the future.'”

Tristate poll
    A Channel 9 (WCPO) poll conducted Tuesdayby SurveyUSA of 500 Cincinnati residents found:
   • 46 percent of adults say this week's meeting between the pope and the U.S. Cardinals will have a positive effect on the way the Catholic church handles priest sexual misconduct in the future.
    • 62 percent say the church is unable to deal with the problem of preventing future sexual misconduct by priests.
    Margin of error: 4.5 percentage points
        The extraordinary gathering of American cardinals in the Vatican this week and the pope's speech signaled to local Catholics a new willingness to address the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church.

        The pope's comments also could portend changes in church policy, which could include more stringent guidelines for handling and reporting sex-abuse claims.

        “If the pope's words are taken seriously, there are going to have to be some very clear, maybe drastic policy changes in how dioceses and archdioceses operate,” Dr. Knitter said.

        Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, cautioned against reading too much into the speech.

        “The pope has clearly made a very strong statement of concern, and I think there was a widespread hunger for that,” Mr. Andriacco said. “But concern itself is not policy. It's going to be up to the Catholic bishops of the United States to look at the policy implications of the crisis we now find ourselves in.”

        In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, “fewer than five” priests continue to serve despite having substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse. The Diocese of Covington has three active priests with a history of sexual misconduct.

        The archdiocese's Decree on Child Protection, first adopted in 1993, outlines the procedure for reinstatement after abuse accusations. The policy calls for strict monitoring, continued counseling and regular updates to the archbishop. Co-workers also are notified about the complaints against the priest.

        Still, the pope's comments are not at odds with the archdiocese's policies, Mr. Andriacco said.

        “If the pope meant to indicate a so-called "one-strike and you're out' policy should be the norm for all the dioceses of the church, he didn't say so,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        But other Catholics say that's precisely the message from the pope and a policy they think the church should adopt.

        The pope took a first step, said lifelong Catholic Don Barker of Mount Airy.

        “Apologizing is one thing, but I think you need to look at how to prevent this in the future,” he said.

        A father of three, Mr. Barker wants church leaders to consider lifting the requirement of celibacy for priests and allowing the ordination of women.

        Mary George of Deer Park said the pope's involvement will be an important salve to the wounds of the church.

        “You receive so many blessings just by looking at him,” said Mrs. George, who was part of a group that had an audience with Pope John Paul II in 2000. “I think the cardinals spending time with him will be a wonderful, wonderful blessing ... He'll give pastoral care to them, so they can reflect it back to us.”

        The Rev. Ed Smith appreciates the timing and content of the pope's message. Instead of a knee-jerk response, the pope has taken the time to gather information and to prayerfully consider the church's next steps, said Father Smith, director of formation at Mount St. Mary's Seminary at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

        “He takes these situations which everybody thinks are absolutely negative and turns them into opportunities for the church to grow.”

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