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Victims tell bishops of abuse

Clergy leader admits mistakes were made

By Judy L. Thomas

Kansas City Star

DALLAS -- Victims of sexual abuse by priests addressed the nation's 300 Roman Catholic bishops Thursday, tearfully telling their stories and urging church leaders to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for clergy who molest minors.

"If our trust in the church is to be restored, it will not only take action, but also a transformation of attitudes ... from the top down and the bottom up," said Michael Bland, a Chicago man who was abused at 15 by a priest.

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Victims told their stories at the annual spring gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The 2 1/2-day event began Thursday at the Fairmont Hotel, with Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops' conference, delivering perhaps the strongest criticism yet of the way church leaders have handled the crisis.

Observers said the victims' meeting with bishops could lead to a "one-strike-you're-out" policy against priests who abuse minors, no matter how old the offense. Last week, a panel of bishops endorsed a zero-tolerance policy toward future sex abuse and the defrocking of any priest with more than one incident of sex abuse in his past.

But victims -- and some bishops -- want the zero-tolerance policy to apply to all abusive priests. Late Thursday, the debate among bishops was reportedly moving in just that direction.

"This is unprecedented," said the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., one of the nation's premier treatment centers for abusive priests. "What the bishops needed to hear was the sense of pain and betrayal that these victims have felt.

"I think the possibility of them returning anyone to the ministry after credible allegations are lodged against them is going to be very remote," he said. "Clearly, the momentum is moving toward zero tolerance."

Bishop Gregory opened the conference by telling fellow bishops that they had not done enough to prevent priests from sexually abusing minors.

"We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or -- God forbid -- with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse," he said.

"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this," he added. "We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church."

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Church leaders, he said, had been touched by the victims' stories.

"They not only shared their stories, but even more importantly, they shared their tears, and we felt their agony," Gregory said.

Gregory apologized to victims, their families and others in the clergy, who he said have suffered hurt and embarrassment. But he had more strong words for fellow bishops.

"There is a lot of anger among us in this room -- righteous anger," he said, noting that the bishops had adopted a plan in 1992 to deal with sexual abuse of minors.

"The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a small number of bishops during the past 10 years."

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