Vatican City--(AP) While Pope John Paul II has kept a public silence, the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is starting to stir some Vatican prelates to speak out, condemning wrongdoing and demanding stricter screening of candidates for the priesthood. "It's a very dark day in the history of the church in the United States," said Archbishop John P. Foley, an American who is president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He recently returned from a trip to the United States where, in a homily at a Philadelphia seminary, he forcefully denounced abuses as a "grave offense against God and a grave offense against God's children."

Vatican officials said John Paul may say something on the matter Thursday when he issues his annual pre-Easter letter to priests, usually an occasion to refer to the celibacy commitment made by Roman Catholic priests.

In recent years, John Paul, who will be 82 in May and has suffered from a string of ailments, has been leaving more day-to-day Vatican business to others while he concentrates on global issues such as reconciliation among religions and peoples and on his worldwide travels.

But John Paul's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, says the pope is in full command and fully informed about the scandal, which some say threatens to undermine the moral authority of the church in the United States. Sex abuse cases have also cost millions in legal settlements. Last week, moving extraordinarily swiftly by Vatican standards, the pope took just four days to accept the resignation offered by the bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., for sexual abuse of a seminarian.

While there has been a recent explosion of sex abuse cases in the United States, the problem has worldwide implications. In January, the Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to a landmark $110 million payment to children sexually abused by clergy over decades. More than 20 priests, brothers and nuns have been convicted of molesting children. Sexual abuse cases involving cover-ups have also been reported in England, France and Australia, among other countries.

John Paul has been described as particularly saddened by sexual harassment allegations leveled against the archbishop of Poznan in the pope's native Poland. Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who worked with John Paul at the Vatican and was sent by him to Poland in 1982, denied the allegations in a letter read in parishes last Sunday.

For years, the Vatican viewed such reports as attempts to discredit the church or as part of an orchestrated campaign against the celibacy requirement. Vatican officials say some still maintain this attitude, but others have begun to express alarm. Several mid-level Italian officials at the Vatican said that seminaries have to do a better job of screening candidates for the priesthood.

Several proposals on psychological testing have been examined, but apparently are still in a study stage. The Catholic News Service said church officials view homosexuality as a potential problem that could be disclosed by such testing. In a surprising editorial, the Boston archdiocese's official newspaper said the church must face the question of whether to continue requiring celibacy of priests.

The Boston archdiocese has been in turmoil, with calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law for covering up for a priest despite allegations he had molested boys. Vatican officials say there is no sign the pope intends to move against the cardinal.

In a major case that reached the Vatican during this papacy, in 1998 John Paul forced Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer to relinquish all his church duties following allegations he molested young boys. Even then, the Vatican drew sharp criticism in Austria for taking three years to act.

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