DALLAS -- At an extraordinary meeting on the sex scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic church, U.S. bishops took a step toward a zero-tolerance policy for pedophile priests after scrapping a proposal that would have kept some abusive clergy in the ministry.
Bishops met in a closed-door session until late Thursday as they crafted a plan that Catholic leaders hope will end a crisis that has seen the dismissal or resignation of 250 accused priests since January. Four bishops also have stepped down.
Final legislation was to be approved Friday -- progress considered unprecedented for a church that often debates issues for years.
Last week's initial draft proposed that a priest who abused one minor in the past could be reassigned to a parish, though only if he underwent counseling, was examined by a review board, agreed to supervision and publicly disclosed his misconduct.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said it would be "unacceptable" to allow abusive priests to continue with parish work. "That sounds as if you can do it once and no one would pay attention to you," he said.
Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, head of the drafting committee, indicated this left two options: Strict zero tolerance -- ousting any priest found guilty of abuse -- or a slightly less strict policy of the sort advocated by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.
McCarrick has suggested allowing some older men guilty of one past misdeed to remain technically in the priesthood but living in close confinement, kept out of parishes and barred from celebrating public Masses.
A less contentious aspect of last week's proposal -- that all future acts of molestation would result in expulsion -- was expected to be retained Friday.
Thursday's meeting came after a highly dramatic opening in which Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Bishops, bluntly acknowledged that bishops' mistakes helped cause the scandal.
While Gregory has repeatedly apologized for the bishops' role in the crisis, his remarks Thursday were perhaps his most direct yet.
"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this," he said. "We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse."
Bishops also heard victims tell how pain permeated their lives. Michael Bland of Chicago told of joining the priesthood but leaving after trying to persuade church leaders to take action against his molester.
"The priesthood lost me but kept the perpetrator," said Bland, a psychologist who works with victims in the Chicago Archdiocese.
Gregory once again told victims he was sorry for the pain they suffered, and further asked forgiveness from the "faithful priests" whose reputations have been marred by the misconduct of a few. He also asked bishops who were guilty of abuse to turn themselves in to Vatican authorities.
One of the leaders hardest hit by scandal, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, had plans to apologize to his fellow prelates, said his spokeswoman, Donna Morrissey. The national crisis began when Boston court documents revealed Law allowed a pedophile priest to continue to serve.
Outside the hotel where the meeting was being held, about 50 people protested the church's handling of abuse cases.
About 150 people later attended an evening prayer service that started with the song "Healing River." An opening prayer included the line "fill the hearts of your faithful people gathered here and the hearts of our bishops gathered in earnest deliberation."
After the bishops approve a reform policy Friday, they plan to take up a second document, listing "norms" or key provisions that affect church law in America. These require Vatican approval to become binding on all U.S. dioceses since each bishop answers to Rome, not the bishops' conference. Otherwise, the policy would remain a mere gentlemen's agreement.
Flynn said there was no time this week to prepare a third document that would spell out details on ousting priests. That will wait until the bishops' November meeting, he said.
Victims and independent caucuses meeting here have pressed for a further, radical demand -- that U.S. church leaders lobby Rome to remove bishops who kept abusive clergy on duty while ignoring warnings.
There seemed little prospect that Friday's final document would endorse that idea.
All of the nearly 400 retired and active bishops in the United States are invited to this week's conference, but only the active prelates -- who number around 285 -- can vote on the policy.
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