VATICAN CITY, April 23 (UPI) -- Pope John Paul II told U.S. Roman Catholics gathered Tuesday in the pontiff's Apostolic Palace in Vatican City that the church must work to assure parents their children are safe and to establish criteria to prevent priests from sexually molesting youngsters in the future, but American clerical leaders appeared divided about a solution.
"Like you, I, too, have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests ... whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young," the pope said in a statement.
"Because of the great harm done by some priests ... the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God."
The pope, however, seemed to view the problems in wider terms.
"The abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the church but society as a whole," the pope said. "It is a deep-seated crisis of sexual morality, even of human relationships, and its prime victims are the family and the young. In addressing the problem of abuse with clarity and determination, the church will help society to understand and deal with the crisis in its midst."
Others attending the meeting also spoke up, disclosing differences.
During a break from a somber, closed-door summit with leaders of the Catholic Church from the United States, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago spoke of a difference of opinion between participants over whether to adopt a policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual abusers in the priesthood. He said the disagreement was due to the broad variety of priestly misconduct with minors.
"There is a difference between a moral monster like (John) Geoghan, who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion, and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old woman, who returns his affection," said the cardinal.
John Geoghan is a former Boston priest convicted of sexually abusing young boys.
According to George, both types of behavior are crimes under civil law. However, "in terms of the culpability and the possibility of reform of one's life, they are two very different set of circumstances.
"Given the civil law, can we make such a distinction in ecclesiastical policy? I am not sure whether or not the present moment permits that distinction, so we might go toward zero tolerance."
George said criteria must be established to help prevent priests from molesting children but noted that the pope also put the scandal into context by talking about the vast majority of good priests who work with the young and the poor. He said the pope believes this may be an "opportunity that God may use to purify the church."
Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. National Conference of Bishops, said the prelates were told to "provide assurances for our people of the safety of their children" and added that the pope made it clear "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for people who would harm the young."
Gregory said the five principles to which the Conference of Bishops agreed in 1993 will be the basis of any new criteria for dealing with priests who are accused of harming children. He noted most dioceses that have implemented the 1993 principles are reviewing them to ensure they are up to date.
"We have a good foundation, we want to make sure it's a solid foundation," Gregory said.
Gregory said bishops who have made judgments that have "proven to be in error in deed, in fact tragic" also are looking for ways to "rectify" those mistakes and noted the church is aware the focus of the scandal also is on the bishops themselves and their credibility in dealing with accused priests.
The statement was in apparent reference to Cardinal Bernard Law, who has admitted he transferred to other parishes priests accused of sexually molesting children. Law, who leads some 1 million Boston-area Catholics, has resisted intense pressure in the past two weeks to resign.
Gregory suggested a milder line that would take into account mitigating circumstances. The alternative proposed by Gregory would be to allow lay diocesan review boards to assist the bishop in deciding whether an accused priest may be reinstated.
Gregory is the first African-American prelate to head the NCCB.
He confirmed that the questions of priestly celibacy and homosexuality did come up during the first meeting, though no participant demanded that married men be consecrated as priests.
George said the policies the church ultimately implements will have more credibility if lay people, including the relatives of molestation victims, participate in the process because "this is a crisis of trust."
He said dealing with the issue of reassigning priests who have harmed children "is still a thorny issue" which will "test our ability" to develop a prudent and transparent process of dealing with such allegations.
The conference will continue Wednesday.