VATICAN CITY (AP) - With a sex abuse scandal convulsing the American Church, the Vatican on Thursday stressed the need for Catholics to confess their sins to be forgiven - but said some habitual sinners could never be absolved. In an apostolic letter (read excerpts), Pope John Paul II did not say who these habitual sinners were, only that they included those living in ongoing and serious states of sin "who do not intend to change their situations."

The pope's letter did not say what should be done with priests who sin, nor did it deal with the scandal in the American church, where priests are accused of sexually abusing children and teen-agers and higher-ups are blamed for covering up the crimes.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls tried at a news conference to steer reporters away from questioning the Vatican's top theological watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the scandal and the extraordinary meeting of American cardinals and bishops he attended at the Vatican last week.

Ratzinger said he found the meetings ``opportune and fraternal'' and that they allowed Vatican officials and the American clergymen to exchange views. He said the American bishops were working on a ``national standard'' that envisaged a judicial process to deal with offenders.

Monsignor Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said there was no need to change church law to deal with priests who sexually abuse minors, saying the issue is already dealt with in existing law. Ratzinger, when asked if the pope was referring to homosexuals and divorcees who remarry in the list of habitual sinners, said the pontiff did not mention specific groups.

For some people, he said, ``you cannot give absolution because the fundamental condition for absolution is that the person must separate from the sin, have the desire for change.''

The Vatican condemns homosexual activity. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, only annulment, and divorced Catholics who remarry are not permitted to take communion.

The pope's apostolic letter was designed to counter what Ratzinger called a ``crisis'' in the sacrament of penance - the process by which Catholics confess their sins to priests and receive forgiveness. Fewer and fewer Catholics celebrate the sacrament, and, as the document stressed, there has been a trend in some countries toward group rather than individual confession.

The document said general absolutions are for use only in ``grave necessity,'' when an individual confession is not possible (more information).

``Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church,'' the letter said.

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