April 18--Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, a main catalyst for next week's meeting of American cardinals in Rome, said Wednesday that he wanted officials at the Vatican to determine a way to quickly fire priests who have sexually abused children and to begin to tighten the national policy on sexually abusive priests.
Gregory's Suggestions

  • Make it easier to throw out priests
  • Act to tighten policy on pedophile priests
  • Stop reassigning problem priests

  • Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he expected the cardinals and Vatican officials to mandate that all U.S. bishops follow the guidelines in every diocese. A prohibition against reassigning priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse to parishes would be an important addition to the guidelines, he said.

    Currently, each bishop can make the decision to fire, or laicize, a priest, but priests retain the right to appeal to the Vatican. As it stands, the process of firing a priest can take years, canon lawyers say.

    "One of the things we might request is an expedited way of removing pedophile priests from the clergy completely," said Gregory, 55. "It would mean that they are no longer members of the clergy. It means that the bond between them and the diocese or religious order is broken.

    "Some of these perpetrators have forfeited the right to be identified with a diocese, forfeited the right to be identified with a religious community because of their egregious activity," Gregory said. "Harming a child harms one of God's own sons and daughters. That's an awful, awful thing."

    Gregory and the cardinals will meet with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who leads the Vatican's department - called a congregation - for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy; and Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops.

    Many are crediting the Illinois bishop's frank and powerful presentation during 12 meetings last week for pushing Vatican officials to summon all U.S. cardinals who lead dioceses.

    "He did a wonderful job," said Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president of the bishops conference, who accompanied Gregory in the meetings last week. "He was very direct, very honest, very respectful."

    Gregory said he had laid the pain of the sexual abuse cases and their cover-up on the table.

    "I hope I spoke clearly, forthrightly, directly and without nuance," Gregory said.

    Vatican officials "were aware of the problem." he said. "I think I was able to enter into a certain level of conversation with them that helped them gain a more significant understanding of the seriousness of this issue."

    By the time he left Rome on Sunday, Gregory said, he had been told that the cardinals would be called to Rome, but he could not announce the meeting until the Vatican had faxed the cardinals about the meetings Tuesday and Wednesday.

    Gregory said next week's meeting was in no way a reversal of earlier Vatican decisions, but a follow-through and outgrowth of last week's discussions. Gregory does not want Catholics to expect too much of the meetings, which he called an interim step in preparation for the U.S. bi shops' conference in June in Dallas.

    "Next week is homework time," Gregory said. "It's another opportunity for the Vatican to hear from the cardinals, and again from myself and Bishop Skylstad, more details of the situation so they have a better grasp on exactly what we are facing."

    Gregory hopes next week to get ideas on exactly what details the Vatican would approve, so they can take those ideas to the bishops' meeting in Dallas.

    "They can say, 'When you bishops get together in June, as you are p reparing your policy, you must make sure you are attentive to this issue, to that issue, to this issue, (and) you must make sure that the policy at least has these qualities, these points to it,'" he said.

    The Vatican leaders "are not going to write the policy for us," he said. For the policy to be enforceable in all U.S. dioceses, the Vatican needs to confirm it, he said.

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