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Vatican: Proposal Goes Against Catholic Law

Aired October 17, 2002 - 11:42   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We have another developing story, this coming to us all the way from across the seas in Rome. The Vatican has now just issued a statement saying it's going to tell the U.S. bishops who had been covering and come up with what they thought was their approach of handling cases of priests abusing parishioners sexually. The Vatican is saying they're going to tell the bishops there are legal anomalies, problems with cannon law in the Catholic Church with the resolution that he did come up with in their meetings in Dallas just a few months ago.
Our Jim Bittermann is standing by right now on the phone. He is in Rome, and he has the latest for us from there -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, it's exactly as you put it, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the head of the U.S. Bishop's Conference, has been here all week long, meeting with various Vatican officials, and today, meeting with the pope himself.

Tomorrow, he's going to be a handed a two-page letter, the Vatican's official response to the propose as of the American bishops made and how to handle pedophile priests.

And what we're hearing is that the American bishops' agreement that was worked out in Dallas in June will not fly as written as far as the Vatican is concerned. The Vatican is saying it is in conflict with church cannon law that, allows for appeals procedure for priests accused of pedophilia, and for a statute of limitations on cases of pedophilia. The agreement in Dallas proposes so-called one-strike and you're out ruling. That is to say, one proven case of pedophilia in any priest's past is enough to have him thrown out of the priesthood.

However, church and cannon law provide the opportunity for a priest to appeal. While the exact contents of the letter are yet to be known, sources tell CNN there are a number of areas where conflicts exist between what the American bishops would like to do and what church law dictates.

The tone of the letter, according to those who have seen, is constructive in the sense that the Vatican is indicating it's willing to work with the American bishops. But it's clear that the Vatican is not abandoning church law to give ground to the American bishops. Sources tell CNN that a special office will be set up in one of the Vatican departments to deal with the pedophilia issue. Several departments exist, there are sections that exist to deal with the issue already.

Bishop Gregory is going to hold a news conference tomorrow morning, U.S. time, here in Rome to explain what he has learned during his meetings here -- Leon.

HARRIS: Jim, I recall this issue coming up a number of times, the points that you just mentioned in the Dallas convention here of the U.S. Catholic bishops, as I was there to cover that, and many people did raise the question as to where this fit with cannon law, but also the big question was because the pope did turn this over to the hands of Bishop Wilton Gregory, who was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, basically leaving it up to them to come up with their own solution. Basically, now the pope is that the solution they came up with is not good enough. But did the pope agree with the spirit of what they almost all agreed to in Dallas here?

BITTERMANN: Well, like I said, we're dealing with sources who are telling us what's in this letter tomorrow, but I think, in fact, from what we hear, the tone is one of sympathy with the American bishops in the sense that the Vatican recognizes the kind of position that they are in, and understands what it is that they are trying to do.

However, they have got to work out somehow -- some way around the conflicts with the cannon law. In order to could that, some of the things that the American bishops wanted don't look like they're going to ever work. It's hard to imagine how you would have a compromise on this whole idea of an appeals procedure.

Under cannon law, a priest who's been accused of pedophilia, proven to be involved in pedophilia cases, under cannon law has an appeal, always has appeal to the Vatican. So even if a bishop were to say, this priest should be thrown out of the priesthood, that's not the final say as far as the Vatican is concerned. So, that's a difference that doesn't seem to be reconcilable, at least at this moment.

HARRIS: I have to tell you, based on what you have been hearing for months on this story, I can't believe that the laity is going to take this very easily here in the States, and maybe elsewhere in the world. This is going to cause debate here in the weeks to come.

Jim, any idea of a timetable of what happens now when the Bishop Wilton Gregory does come back?

BITTERMANN: As we understood it, he wanted very much to get this letter out immediately to his fellow bishops, and we think he's probably already done that. He's going to be talking to us, probably last in line, and we're going to have the news conference tomorrow at which time we'll have a chance to pose some of the questions to him. So, I think that -- then he goes back to the United States after that.

After, that I think that the focus really does shift to the United States to see how this comes down in America, whether or not the bishops in the United States are in agreement with this, whether or not the laity is in agreement. There's a number of victims' groups out there who have been vocal on this issue. What's going to be their reaction? I think that -- the focus will almost immediately change as soon as we find out what's exactly in this letter that the pope is going to switch to the United States to see what the reaction is there.

HARRIS: Yeah. It's also going to shore up the case of the bishops speaking out in the face of criticism, very heated criticism, the ones that were speaking out against the resolution determined in Dallas.

Jim Bittermann, in Rome, thank you very much, Jim, for bringing that breaking news to us now.


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