May 21, 2002

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., said Monday that the Roman Catholic Church responded too slowly to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, and the heat is on bishops to fix it now.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Dallas next month to vote on a new national policy for handling abuse cases and expelling pedophiles.

''We cannot leave Dallas unless we say to the American people, 'This is over,' '' McCarrick said in a wide-ranging discussion with USA TODAY's editorial board and reporters.

As one of 12 U.S. cardinals summoned to a crisis meeting with the pope and Vatican leadership in April, McCarrick led the call for a ''one strike, you're out'' policy on predatory priests and new cases of abuse. But he also is one of a few voices calling for leeway on dealing with a rehabilitated priest whose sole offense was decades ago. That will be a sticking point Wednesday when a committee on sexual abuse begins drawing up a first draft for Dallas. McCarrick isn't on the panel, but he's sent it his views.

He said he sees unanimity among bishops on five key steps for handling abuse allegations: addressing victims' needs; immediately suspending the priest; sending him for a psychiatric assessment; reporting ''credible'' accusations to civil authorities; and consulting a lay board of experts, victims and parents on whether a priest should be returned to the ministry.

An expert in canon law, the internal rules that govern the church worldwide, said the opposite Saturday in a Vatican-approved publication. The Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Vatican City appeals court judge, said when a rehabilitated priest is sent to a new parish, the congregation shouldn't be told about past problems; that would violate his ''good name.''

Even so, McCarrick said, ''most of us would be very surprised and disappointed if the Vatican did not go along'' with the bishops' proposals.

The pope, who has the final say, has called sexual abuse a sin and a crime but has stressed the power of Christian conversion to change sinners.

''We are in the business of forgiveness, but certainly the victim has to come first,'' McCarrick said. Even a priest stripped of his ministry remains a bishop's responsibility. ''You can't take them out and shoot them. You have to love them and care for them as best you can.''

In the early '90s the bishops' group created voluntary guidelines similar to those now proposed. But ''not all bishops got in line,'' McCarrick said.

A third federal racketeering suit was filed Monday against Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony alleging he helped cover up for a pedophile priest 14 years after he learned of the abuse. Mahony has apologized for failing to act in the case and insisting victims stay quiet in return for settlement money.
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