NCR Home Page
Subscribe to NCR
National Catholic Reporter ®
News & Commentary

John L. Allen, Jr. -
Rest of world skeptical of 'zero tolerance' strategy

Thomas P. Doyle -
Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Eugene Kennedy -
The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Margot Patterson -
Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson -
Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Sandra Schneiders -
The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson is senior writer for NCR.


Chicago Cardinal Francis George has called for sanctions to be applied in the future to negligent bishops who don’t properly address the problem of sexually abusive priests.

Before leaving for a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, George held a news conference June 10 in which he said bishops as well as priests must be held accountable for their actions. The cardinal said he would submit his suggestions for appropriate sanctions at the meeting in Dallas June 13-15 but declined to disclose them before they had been given to his fellow bishops.

According to news accounts, George said he was responding in part to a 44-page report on “Views of the Laity” that was based on about 10,000 questionnaires. The report said many of those who had responded to the questionnaire believed that bishops who moved priests who had abused children from one parish to another were more culpable for the crimes of those priests than the priests themselves were.

Responding to criticisms of victims advocacy groups’ and others, George said the recommendations of the USCCB’s ad hoc committee on sexual abuse must be toughened to prevent any priest who has committed any kind of sex abuse from continuing in ministry. The draft recommendations publicized June 4 would allow a priest with only a single incident of sex abuse in his past to continue in ministry if he had fulfilled all criminal penalties and met certain specified conditions. While George acknowledged a blanket zero tolerance policy would not address the complexity of individual cases and said his personal preference would be to have a review board that would examine the rare situation where there has been only one incidence of past abuse, he said in the current climate a zero tolerance policy seems necessary to restore trust in the church.

“I can live with that provided that the bishops take the same responsibilities and it doesn’t look as if we’re just setting the priests up as perpetrators here,” George was quoted as saying in an article published by The Chicago Tribune.

In the same article Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch was also quoted as saying that a zero tolerance policy may be necessary despite his opinion that such a policy is unforgiving. “If that is what people want, I would vote for that, even though I’m not convinced it’s the right policy,” Imesch said.

With prominent bishops like George and Imesch speaking out for stricter measures, some observers consider that an indication that the conference as a whole is likely to move towards that position despite bishops’ individual desires to have some discretion in deciding the fate of errant priests.