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Vatican Press Conference

Aired April 23, 2002 - 07:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: "Up Front" this morning, U.S. cardinals are meeting with the pope. America's top clerics arrived in the Vatican this morning and began a historic two-day summit to discuss how to respond to the sex abuse scandal in the church that is seriously testing the faith of many Catholics here.

Joining us now from Rome, CNN's Alessio Vinci -- good morning, Alessio. What has happened so far?

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN ROME BUREAU CHIEF: Hello to you, Paula. Well, you know, the Vatican officials here in Rome for many, many months believed that the sex abuse scandal was just something that was a problem in the United States, blown up out of proportion by the American press.

But with this meeting now taking place here at the Vatican, and not just anywhere in the Vatican, but in those quarters very close to where Pope John Paul II actually lives and works. These are the areas of the secretary of state, Angelo Sodano. It is very, very close to where Pope John Paul II spends most of his time when he is inside the Vatican.

Vatican officials there have -- and the U.S. cardinals have addressed a variety of issues there dealing directly with the sex abuse scandal earlier today. First, the American cardinals addressed the meeting.

And then Pope John Paul II issued his own speech, and he said basically that he was deeply grieved by the sex scandal, and that as a result of it, he said the church was viewed with distrust. He said that there was no place in the church for those who harm children, and he hoped that this trial will bring purification, in his words, of the Catholic community.

At one point in his speech, Pope John Paul II seemed to offer some words of understanding, if you want, for some of those who had to handle the sex abuse scandal. He said that the generalized knowledge of the problem led bishops to make the wrong decisions. And he said that the meeting here at the Vatican today should help them out not to repeat those mistakes in the future.

So this is what happened early this morning. We understand the meeting is about to end now. There will be a recess. The bishops are expected to give a press briefing. We are hoping to bring this to you live later on as soon as it happens. And then around 4:30 local time, the meeting will resume with the Vatican officials and the cardinals readdressing the issue of sex abuse -- back to you, Paula.

ZAHN: Alessio, isn't it true, though, even if pretty firm guidelines are come up with, that no action will be taken on this really until American bishops get together later this summer in Dallas?

VINCI: That is absolutely correct. Both the U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials here are warning against high expectations out of this meeting. They are saying that this is a consultative meeting. That both sides will sit together to discuss those guidelines that will, you know, when eventually -- guidelines that will eventually be brought back to the United States for the U.S. bishops to discuss them and eventually to make them public when the U.S. bishops meet together in June in Dallas.

So this is just a way for the two sides, the U.S. cardinals and the Vatican officials here, to sit down and talk about those guidelines and perhaps for the Vatican to have a bigger say in what those guidelines should be -- Paula.

ZAHN: Alessio Vinci, thank you for that report, and we will be checking in with you throughout the morning. We, of course, are waiting for that joint news conference of Bishop Wilton Gregory and Cardinal Francis George when they give us an update of exactly what has happened inside those meetings. We'll bring it to you live.

Stay with CNN throughout the day for coverage of the Vatican summit, and please join Connie Chung tonight at 8:00 Eastern for a one-hour special, "Live from Rome: Crisis in the Priesthood."

We have just been informed that that news conference has started after all. We are going to dip into it to give you an idea of what these priests and cardinals think came out of these meetings today.


BISHOP WILTON GREGORY, U.S. CONFERENCE OF BISHOPS: We have just finished the first of the sessions of conversations between the officers of the conference of the USCCB and the American cardinals and the representatives of the diastral (ph) offices of the Holy See.

There were 24 participants. The meetings have been very cordial, and I am very hopeful. I gave my opening presentation, the specifics of which, as all the specifics of the individual interventions, are confidential. But I can say in general, my opening comments described the genesis of the crisis that we face, and I refer to the centrality of the issue of making sure that what we do, both in our conversations with the diastral (ph) heads, but also in our June meeting is to provide assurances for our people, of the safety of their children.

I spoke to the thorny issue of the reassignment of priests, who have either been found guilty or admitted guilt of child molestation. I spoke honestly and openly about the need to be transparent in our handling of these cases and fair, as well as to reach out to those who have been harmed, victims or their families.

Cardinal George will now speak to the situation of the wonderful conversation that we just had with the holy father and his presentation.

CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE, ARCHBISHOP OF CHICAGO: I believe that you have a copy, or will have, of the pope's two-and-a-half page discourse to the cardinals this morning. It was not a conversation so much as his giving us his own contribution to a conversation that began really at his initiative last February, when he asked for more information about the situation that he had been hearing reports about.

And he starts by saying that that is the purpose of our coming together here in these two days to inform him and the context (ph) of congregations in the Roman Curia about the situation. He spoke about his being deeply grieved by the fact that some priests and religious whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives have themselves caused great scandal and suffering, especially the young. He spoke about his solidarity with victims.

And then he went on to talk about the need to have criteria firmly established to ensure that this scandal is never repeated. And he put that in the context, however, of the vast majority of good priests and religious who continue to work with the young, with the poor, with all those who come to the church for help. And he also spoke about a conversion, the work of God's grace in healing the situation. He mentioned a bit about the larger societal context of this difficulty, and finally he spoke about this being an opportunity that God may use to purify the church.

That discourse that he shared with us came at the conclusion of a morning session, which was very serious, even somber. And yet in ending it as he did, the pope encouraged us to face all the difficulties, which Bishop Gregory started out so well in outlining, and so we'll continue the conversations this afternoon and tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, right here in the fifth or sixth row, yes.


QUESTION: And why wasn't that -- sorry. First of all, concerning criteria, new criteria. What their criteria already established our protocol in '93, or somewhere about that, by the Ad Hope Committee (ph). Why aren't those being implemented now? Why do we need new criteria?

The second thing is we talk about the scandal caused by some priests and religious. It seems to me and a lot of other people that the scandal right now is not about priests, but about the bishops and their oversight or lack thereof. Was that an issue? And how are the two issues perhaps related? Thank you.

GREGORY: Let me begin by saying that the five principles that the Conference of Bishops elaborated and produced in 1993 remain the basis of whatever criteria will eventually be confirmed in June in Dallas. But in all seriousness, most of the dioceses that already have implemented those criteria are already looking at the policies and the protocols they have in place to make sure that they are as current and as up-to-date and as effective as possible.

So in a sense, we have a good foundation. We just want to make sure that it's an even more solid foundation. Obviously, the question of the credibility of bishops is a real concern, and those bishops, who have made judgments that have proven to be in error, and in fact tragic, are looking for ways to make sure that they handle all future cases appropriately and in whatever ways they can, to rectify the mistakes and the errors in judgment from the past that they may have been guilty of.

So we are fully aware that the focus is on the credibility of the bishops and our leadership.

GEORGE: Could I say to that that the five points in the criteria of 1993 are there in many, many dioceses' policies as they come forward to be reviewed. The difference in the application of them depend, it seems to me, on who is doing the application of the principles, whether it's the bishop himself, whether it's an independent review board, who is involved in this. And what seems to me to be clear is that the more that lay people and others, including the relatives of victims, are involved in applying the policies, the more credibility the actions of the bishop himself might have.

I didn't mean to give the impression that the pope ignored the difficulty of the credibility of bishops. He makes reference to it, as you will see, at the bottom of the first page of his discourse about bishops making decisions which subsequent events prove to be wrong. This is a crisis of trust. It's trust in the holiness of priests and trust in the honesty of bishops and that together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll take a question over here, yes, in the first row.

QUESTION: Your Eminence and Bishop Gregory, within two years I think of this pope's election, there was a decree from the holy office that was addressed to the American bishops (ph) dealing with the scandal of sex norms that were promulgated by Sister Agnes Cunningham (ph), Father Anthony Cosnik (ph) and a number of people who produced a book on sex morality for Catholics that was scandalous and outrageous. And I believe it was condemned more strongly than any other moral statement has ever been condemned in the history of the church. I don't know. But I know the text said not only does this text not teach as Jesus did, but it does the opposite.

Now, so far as I know, there has never been any attention paid to that statement in the United States. I am not aware that moral theology has changed anyplace in the United States, or that this document is ever referred to or cited by any ecclesiastic in the United States. My impression is that Charles Currin (ph) to all intents and purposes has formed the moral conscious of a great number of priests in America, and therefore it is not in the least surprising that the things we hear about, and much more, is constantly going on. Is that not true?

GREGORY: It seems to me that the church's position on the teaching that was present in that book, which was issued I believe under the auspices of the Catholic Theological Society of America. The church's position has been clear in its condemnation. As far as I know, certainly in my own experience as a teacher in the seminary, that book was no longer approved or used subsequent to that decision.

As you well know, Father Currin (ph) lost his position at the Catholic University of America, specifically over questions on his moral theology. To say that all priests or even a majority of priests have been formed by that theological opinion, I would take exception to.

Is it influential in the broader society, those positions? Obviously, which is even more reason for the church to be vigilant in pointing out where those moral positions run counter to the official teaching of the church. But to be able to say that it is the only source of moral theological teaching in contemporary seminary training, I would not believe that to be the case. I know that the seminaries that my students attend would insist on solid, moral theological training and foundational work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To the right, on this side just in front of the riser (ph).

QUESTION: John Allen (ph) from the "National Catholic Reporter." The holy father today in his address referred to the need not to forget about Christian conversion. I am wondering if you would -- Christian conversion, the pope said we should not forget about the possibility of Christian conversation. I am wondering if you would take that as an implicit rejection of the idea of a one strike and you're out policy for abuser priests. Thank you.

GREGORY: I personally would not, because I see in an earlier statement or an earlier part of that statement, where the holy father says that people need -- or in the later part, excuse me -- people need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. I think that's a pretty clear statement that encourages us to be very vigilant and indeed committed to making sure that children are not harmed, especially by those who are in the priesthood or religious life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, about the fourth row, black sweater. Could you stand, please? Can you check the microphone?

QUESTION: The pope also mentions this is a time for purification of the church. Do you take that to mean the church, the universal church? And with that, that this experience of the cardinals coming here to provide a lesson for your colleagues in other countries? Or said another way, is this an American problem, or is this a problem that also exists elsewhere?

GEORGE: I think the pope was speaking to a number of U.S. bishops, but he always speaks with the universal church in mind. And so I would say both. We all know that sin is universal. Americans aren't the only ones who sin. And therefore, there are examples of this behavior elsewhere.

The difference perhaps in the United States is the tort system, which makes a bishop perhaps more directly responsible for anything a priest does than might be the case in other legal systems, and also the spotlighting of this behavior by you and your (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which is a moment of grace if it permits victims to come forward who otherwise would not have come forward, that is something that is very good that can come out of this scandal.

So I think that the holy father certainly knows that the problem exists elsewhere. It's just that for the moment, it's the United States that is talking about it. If we talk about it honestly, with integrity and with the reliance upon God's grace, then perhaps what we do in the United States can be helpful to the universal church.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Second row here.

QUESTION: Allen Crasheski (ph), ABC News, Chicago. Eminence Bishop, I want to go back to the earlier questions that Allen (ph) posed a bit with regard to the notion of a one strike and you're out policy. And I have heard what you said, Bishop, but if I could get a little bit of clarification, perhaps from you, Cardinal, as well, as to, first of all, is that how you heard that comment? And secondly, if that is indeed the case, what would be the ramifications perhaps for priests who are still in pastoral situations who perhaps have had accusations against them in the past?

GREGORY: It seems to me that the question of the reassignment of priests or religious who have harmed children is still a thorny issue. We must assure our people that we will not place their children in harm's way. We need to make that clear and without any doubt about that. How we handle cases from the past, and there are cases from the past, in terms of being both honest with our people but also aware of mitigating circumstances will test our ability to come up with a prudent yet transparent solution.

Perhaps one of the ways that that might be best addressed is by not having the bishop make such difficult decisions alone. With the proper use of review boards comprised of lay people, professionals, victims themselves, we might be able to come up with a way that both achieves what we need to do, with -- for our people, that is to assure them that their children are not at harm, while at the same time, addressing any neuralgic (ph) issues that may still be sitting out there.

ZAHN: All right. You have just been listening to Bishop Wilton Gregory and Cardinal Francis George, who is the Archbishop of Chicago, bringing reporters up to date on exactly what the pope said in his meetings earlier today with the cardinals he met with.

Let's quickly turn to Bill Press, our own CNN commentator, who spent 10 years in a Catholic seminary studying to be a priest. And during that time, took a vow of celibacy. He joins us now from Washington.

Bill, I guess the thing I was most struck by... BILL PRESS, COMMENTATOR: Hi.

ZAHN: ... good morning...

PRESS: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: ... was the comment that Bishop Gregory made where he said the pope, in fact, did make an apology. And I'm going to read a direct quote from the pope. And this is exactly what he told the cardinals early this morning. That he was "... deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious, 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."

I'm sure that doesn't come as any great surprise that he said that, but how important was it that he expressed that today?

PRESS: Well, first, I think this entire meeting is historic, Paula. It's probably the greatest scandal that the Catholic Church has faced since the Protestant reformation in Martin Luther and the selling of indulgences.

And the fact that these American cardinals have all been summoned to Rome, that they're dealing there with the pope, with the top leaders of the Vatican on this important issue, is historic and very, very important. And it certainly shows that the Church is now recognizing this is a problem that they've got to deal with. They cannot sweep it under the rug any longer.

And for the pope to make that apology on behalf of all the leaders of the church, to the American people, to these families, is huge. It's very, very significant. I've never seen anything like it.

ZAHN: And I guess the pope also indicated to cardinals he felt this was an opportunity to purify the church. His exact quote: "So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier church."

PRESS: Yes, and I think as listening to Cardinal George and to Bishop Gregory, clearly the focus is on saving the Church, if you will. Saving the Church money, saving the Church embarrassment, maintaining and restoring the good image of the Church. And I think that's the problem with this meeting, is that they're talking about process, very important steps.

They're talking about the fact that if these cases are reported again that law enforcement is going to immediately be informed. They're talking about the fact that one strike and you're out. So priests are not going to be reassigned from one parish to another, and the Church is not going to have to deal with that embarrassment, not going to have to deal with these lawsuits.

But I don't think they're getting to the root causes of why this is going to happen. The problem, in my judgment, is going to continue to happen until the Church is willing to face the issue of why priests do this. And I think that gets you back to the question that Cardinal Roger Mahony said has to be on the table, which is a question of celibacy. And so far, I think the pope has made it clear and most of the cardinals have made it clear, they're not going to touch it.

ZAHN: Yeah, that's my understanding as well. That maybe that might be addressed at the bishops' meeting in Dallas in June. But I want to take issue with something you've just said.

PRESS: Sure.

ZAHN: Because you said that the one strike and you're out policy seemed to be reinforced. But as we went out, someone asked a very pointed question about the reassignment of priests, and Bishop Gregory admitted that that is an extremely thorny issue and said, you know, "We must assure our parishioners that their children will not be at risk." But then he said, "Maybe it is that bishops should not be making this decision alone." And he talked about the possibility involving lay people and psychological counselors and victims themselves to take a role in this whole process.

PRESS: Well I think -- you're right, it was a little bit -- he did leave it a little bit fuzzy. He was saying -- again, he was talking about the process, the bishop, they'd have a review board. But I think it's very clear. The church knows that they cannot assign a priest who has been found guilty of molesting a child into another parish where the priest might have that same opportunity.

Now maybe he's saying the priests could give retreats for adults somewhere out in the boonies. Maybe he's leaving that possibility open, where they could go to a monastery and still be a priest, but certainly have no contact with children.

You know we're going to see how the actual specifics develop. But I know that the bishops all understand they cannot continue to move these priests from one place to another. That's either going to bankrupt the Church or it's going to empty the American churches.

ZAHN: Bill, we've only got about 15 seconds left.

PRESS: Sure.

ZAHN: I know you think celibacy is the core issue here, and you don't think that issue will be broached. Is this a good first step, in your judgment?

PRESS: It's a good first step, but it's not enough. They've got to talk about celibacy. They have to talk about the ordination of women as priests if they're really going to get to the root causes of this problem. The Church moves very, very, very slowly, if not glacially, but those issues have to be on the table some day.

ZAHN: All right. Bill Press, good to see you. Thank you for joining us this morning.

PRESS: Good to see you, Paula, too.




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