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U.S. Cardinals Meet in Vatican For Historic Sex Abuse Summit

By Carol Eisenberg

Here in this ancient city-state where change is often measured in centuries, a dozen American cardinals prepared Monday for extraordinary closed-door meetings with top Vatican officials.

The cardinals say they will press for the authority to make changes aimed at eliminating the scourge of clergy sex abuse and restoring the credibility of the Roman Catholic leadership in the United States.

With dozens of U.S. reporters jamming the street outside the North American College where many of the cardinals are staying, the pressure for them to produce concrete results from the hastily arranged two-day meeting was palpable Monday.

“We’ve passed the time of mea culpas,” Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a news briefing when asked whether the group would produce an apology to American Catholics. “... Bishops everywhere ... have expressed sorrow for their poor judgment and for their inactivity (on this issue). I think people know we’re sorry. What they want to know is what we’re going to do about it.”

But galvanizing an institution accustomed to moving at a glacial pace will not be easy. Gregory said American church leaders would seek Pope John Paul II’s approval to impose a set of standards for handling sex abuse that would be binding on all U.S. bishops. Currently, each bishop is essentially king of his own diocese, answerable only to the pope.

While no such changes are expected to be announced this week, a green light from the Vatican would mean the proposals could be voted on at a June meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas, when the entire American hierarchy is to meet to discuss a response to the sex abuse scandals.

In interviews in the past few days, several cardinals floated the prospect of a new, national protocol for handling clergy sex abuse that would be binding on all American bishops, and which likely would require that all allegations of abuse be reported to civil authorities. They’re also debating a “one strike and you’re out” policy for removing abusive priests. And they’re seeking authority from the Vatican to defrock abusive priests more easily than canon law currently allows.

But their efforts are expected to face at least some resistance by the Vatican, which is run by cardinals more conservative than the American prelates and which will want to ensure that the U.S. bishops do not endanger the church’s historic autonomy or create problems for the church in other parts of the world.

The pope is expected to attend at least part of Tuesday morning’s session in the Sala Bologna in the Apostolic Palace, but will not be there for the entire session. The second day of meetings will be Wednesday.