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U.S. Bishops Try To Restore Credibility

In an effort to restore their credibility and assert their moral authority, America's Roman Catholic bishops are tackling problems ranging from abuse by the clergy to the impending war with Iraq.

They insisted that their sex-abuse cleanup policy will rid the clergy of molesters, even as some of the prelates expressed confusion about details of Vatican-imposed changes in the plan.

The bishops are expected to vote on the revised policy Wednesday near the end of a four-day meeting. They seem likely to approve the plan, which they hope will help re-establish their badly damaged credibility among the Catholic faithful at the end of a scandal-plagued year.

Victims say the new plan retreats from the promises the church made earlier this year. An advocacy group released a database Tuesday with the names of 573 priests who have been accused of abuse since 1996, along with information about 290 cases in which the priest was left unidentified.

"I know as a parent I can't trust the bishops," said Paul Baier, leader of the Survivors First project.

The bishops agreed Tuesday to draft a statement on the threat of war with Iraq that will likely oppose an American invasion under the current circumstances.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who has been under fire all year for his handling of sex abuse claims against priests, proposed issuing the Iraq statement in his role as chairman of the prelates' international affairs committee.

Law said the statement "will certainly be in opposition to war in this situation," though not against all wars. The conference voted to allow Law's committee to write the statement. It will vote again on whether to endorse it.

The bishops' president, Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., delivered a letter to Bush in September that raised doubts about a pre-emptive military strike.

Gregory told Bush that the bishops' 50-member administrative committee had serious moral questions about "any pre-emptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq."

The bishops supported U.S. action in Afghanistan last year, though they cautioned that worldwide poverty and human rights must be factors in U.S. foreign policy. Law said Afghanistan was "a different case" because a pre-emptive strike was not involved.

During the prelates' discussion on Tuesday, Archbishop Philip Hannan, the retired leader of the New Orleans Archdiocese and a World War II paratrooper chaplain, urged Law's committee "to be cautious and to acknowledge at least the difficulties the president is taking care of."

"If we allow some despotic power to rule the earth, or some portion of it, we are in terrible shape for our religion as well as protection of our rights," Hannan said.

He also noted that "advances in weaponry" seen in the Afghanistan conflict show that warfare can be "precise in its effects."

Bishop Edward Braxton of Lake Charles, La., said he favored an anti-war stand but admitted "a large number" of the nation's 65 million Catholics do not understand the church's teaching on criteria for a "just war" and have "a general we-don't-like-Saddam-Hussein" attitude.

If the statement opposes this particular war, rather than wars in general, Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of Honolulu said that could make it tough to give Catholics give moral guidance.

"What would we say to Catholics who participate in this war, in terms of conscience?" he asked. Law said his committee would have to consider that point.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., one of four Americans who negotiated the abuse policy changes with Vatican officials last month, said Monday that the bishops agreed last June to remove all molesters from active ministry and "we have not backed off in any way from that commitment."

Gregory, praised the work of the U.S. negotiators and called for unity among Catholics. He said the bishops will not falter in "our determination to put into place policies that will protect children."

But when Chicago's Cardinal Francis George presented a report from the U.S. negotiators, several bishops asked for further explanation on a text they had only 11 days to study instead of the usual weeks or months.

The prelates asked questions about the details of the plan, which - among other things - stresses that church tribunals must hear the cases of accused priests.

George said groups that have "misunderstood" the revisions as a weakening of the original policy should "read it again with the help of a canon lawyer."

Lori said the Vatican mainly wanted to make explicit that accused priests have a right to a church trial to defend themselves, which was only implicit in the original plan.

The Vatican also insisted on including the standard statute of limitations in church law (victims must file complaints by age 28). But Lori said bishops can ask Rome for a waiver, and if that fails, they still have administrative powers to remove guilty priests from active church work.

The bishops got a boost on a controversial point from the National Review Board, a lay panel set up last July to monitor the bishops' application of the reforms. The board also met Monday.

Board chairman Frank Keating, Oklahoma's governor, said his panel was especially concerned that the revision no longer requires bishops to report all abuse accusations to police; the prelates are only required to comply with local law.

But he said the bishops have assured the board that whatever the Vatican rewrite says about church law requirements, the bishops are still fully committed to full reporting.

"Right now, we're satisfied," Keating said.

Lay critics and abuse victims have also complained that the Vatican rewrite may not require bishops to obtain advice from local review boards, which only have advisory powers. "They are advisory, but I would be crazy not to take their advice," Lori said.

In a speech that opened the meeting, Gregory said the abuse crisis this year has "fractured" relations among prelates, priests and rank-and-file Catholics. He acknowledged clergy feel "unfairly judged" by the misdeeds of a few.

"We cannot and must never allow the particular positions that we have taken on such a serious issue, or even the mistakes that we have made in understanding and addressing it, to destroy our communion with one another in the Lord," Gregory said.

Critics inside and outside of the church have tried to capitalize on the scandals to undermine Catholic teaching, Gregory said. He urged bishops to challenge them.

"One cannot fail to hear in the distance - and sometimes very nearby - the call of the false prophet," Gregory said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Gregory's speech, "a real slap in the face to Catholic lay people."

Meanwhile, CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports the Vatican is now drafting a document that could ban homosexuals from the priesthood.

"It's a big, big crisis that the Vatican is precipitating, " said Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has studied sex abuse in the priesthood for 40 years and is the author of "Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis."

Sipe estimates 30 percent of all Catholic priests are gay.

"So the Vatican coming along and saying we're going to keep all homosexuals out of the clergy is like a gay bar refusing to serve homosexual patrons. It doesn't make any sense," he told Pitts.

"It is very painful to be apart from your church. To hear your church leaders ay there's something wrong with you. That God made a mistake when God made you. That is painful," said Father Jim Morris, who is a gay priest.

Homosexuality and pedophilia, he says, are not related. "Scapegoating of gay priests with this terrible scandal in the Catholic Church has been another terrible scandal."

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