In an interview as he flew back to the United States after a two-day meeting between Vatican officials and American cardinals, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the conference president, said the recommendations produced reflected an attempt to make care and consideration for victims the highest priority while still protecting an accused priest's right to due process.
Bishop Gregory said he expected that when the American Conference of Bishops meets in Dallas in June, it will endorse a zero-tolerance policy for all cases of priests who abuse minors from now on.
The Associated Press quoted Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington as saying that a much clearer statement on sexual abuse would be made at the June meeting. "Whoever has this problem is not going to be a priest in the United States," he said.
But Bishop Gregory said there was still division among the bishops about whether it is always right to remove from ministry those priests accused of abuse that took place long ago, if their behavior since then has been above reproach.
The question about whether to act on old cases is crucial because the vast majority of child abuse victims wait many years before they find the courage or motivation to talk about what happened to them.
"The simplest response would be, there is no difference" between the old and new cases, Bishop Gregory said. "However, I may find out about an incident that occurred 35 years ago, and the perpetrator has been as far as we know absolutely faithful in his service since then. You can understand the dilemma."
As Bishop Gregory and the cardinals who discussed the crisis with Vatican officials flew home to the United States, reactions from American Catholics included confusion, disappointment and outright irritation with the outcome of the Rome conference.
A few said yesterday that they were satisfied the Vatican had taken the upheaval in the church seriously enough to summon the cardinals for a dialog. But in interviews with Catholics across the country, many priests, theologians, criminal prosecutors and victims of priestly abuse said they had hoped for more.
Msgr. Kenneth E. Lasch, whose parish church in Mendham, N.J., was thrown into turmoil in years past by an abusive priest who preceded him, said the Rome meeting had left him and his parishioners "guarded, waiting for something concrete."
"We weren't naïve enough to think that something revolutionary would come out of a two-day meeting," Monsignor Lasch said. "But we expect something thorough and strict to come out soon. Many of our parishioners work in professional fields where if somebody does something damaging they pay a severe penalty."
One bishop, Edward J. O'Donnell of the Diocese of Lafayette, La., where the church scandal began in the mid-1980's, described a mood many Catholics appeared to share.
"I think there was satisfaction that the meetings were held, but I know that among practicing Catholics, there was also a disappointment, which I share," Bishop O'Donnell said. "I don't think the cardinals were specific enough in how we as bishops can proceed."
Many Catholics said they had read the cardinals' joint statement, issued at the close of their Rome meeting on Wednesday. One passage said that the cardinals would propose to the bishops who lead the 194 United States dioceses that a new, apparently expedited process be established to remove priests involved in "the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors," whose activities have become "notorious." The cardinals also proposed to create a separate process for priests who are considered a threat to young people but have not become notorious.
Ray Higgins, a retired California businessman who headed an independent board that investigated sexual abuse at a seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1993 after his son was molested there, said he found that statement a letdown.
"The only time they've ever defrocked a priest before was when it became notorious and turned into a scandal," Mr. Higgins said. "So this brings us back to where we started."
Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the bishops conference, said in an interview on the plane that the distinctions between "notorious" and other priestly abusers were made only because they refer to the code of canon law, the laws of the Roman Catholic church, which treat "notorious" or scandal-causing acts more seriously because they can cause others to lose their faith. At their meeting in Rome, the cardinals won agreement from the Vatican to amend canon law to make it easier for a bishop to have a priest defrocked against his will. The bishops sought permission from the Vatican to do this in 1993, but did not succeed, Monsignor Maniscalco said.
Much of the disappointment reflected the nature of the document that the cardinals issued. The document did not reflect some of the common-sense proposals that Bishop Gregory and other cardinals had recently said they expected to institute.
For example, it did not say that American bishops would immediately refer new allegations to civil authorities, or that they would establish boards composed predominantly of laypeople, including parents and perhaps victims, to review complaints.
That omission caught the attention of Michael K. Allen, the prosecutor who is conducting a grand jury investigation into Cincinnati diocesan priests accused of sexual abuses.
"The main disappointment for me was that apparently there was no specific proposal, guidance or directive for the reporting of these sex-abuse crimes to the police and prosecutors," Mr. Allen said.
Yet in interviews and news conferences in Rome, many of the American cardinals made reference to these measures, and said they expected to vote on such measures when the bishops meet in June to formulate policy. The eight American cardinals who are in charge of their own archdioceses are also members of the conference, and each cardinal has one vote.
Eugene Kennedy, a professor at Chicago's Loyola University who wrote a book about sexuality and the church, attributed the confusion surrounding the cardinals' statement to disunity among the cardinals.
"They don't agree with each other," Dr. Kennedy said. "And they have made regulations, some of them draconian in nature, aimed at a problem they have not defined."
Some psychologists who have evaluated sex abusers, on the other hand, expressed sympathy with the cardinals' attempt to establish gradations in their response to priests' behavior.
Dr. Julian Slowinsky, a clinical psychologist at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia who serves on the board of directors of the Center for Sexuality and Religion, said that while expelling priests who have sexually abused minors might make sense in most cases, individual circumstances could warrant a more mitigated response in others.
"The issue is, how pathological is their behavior and what kind of guarantee can be given for ongoing supervision and treatment," Dr. Slowinsky said. "Just kicking priests out isn't necessarily the answer."
Some Catholics interviewed today seemed encouraged by the meeting. "I think they've made an excellent beginning," said Kathleen O'Connell, a Wall Street lawyer. "The church moves slowly. Nobody is going to get away with this in the future."
The angry views of Steven Brady, who edits The Roman Catholic Faithful, an Internet magazine for conservative Catholics, were at the other extreme. "The pope can say anything he wants," said Mr. Brady, who also owns a small pizza restaurant near Springfield, Ill. "Unless we see some heads roll, some bishops booted out, this all means nothing."
One passage of the cardinals' statement that aroused interest was their proposal for a church investigation of American seminaries to ensure that they are faithful to the church's teachings on morality.
Chris Dixon, a former priest who obtained a $125,000 settlement from the Jefferson City Diocese in Missouri after he was abused by the rector of a high school seminary, predicted that the investigation would become "a witch hunt for homosexuals."
"They're going to blame homosexuals for the problem of pedophilia, which is absurd," said Mr. Dixon, who is gay. "They'll probably try to screen the gay men out of the seminaries, but how do you screen for pedophiles?"
He predicted that if the investigation tried to root gay priests and students from the seminaries, "there are going to be a lot of empty seminaries."
In the interview aboard the plane, Bishop Gregory, who is bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., said that he personally was in favor of zero tolerance for all priest abusers, new and old, whether they have molested many children or one.
"I'd take the man out because often, too often, we find that there are other victims," he said.
In the past, many bishops have removed priests who faced old allegations. But Bishop Gregory said many bishops struggle with doing so because there are often mitigating circumstances, and "the mitigating circumstances are real people."
A common situation facing many bishops now is that someone comes forward and says a priest abused him or her two decades ago, and that all the person wants is an apology and the assurance that the priest will harm no others. The victim does not want his or her name or story made public. The priest may be in his 70's and still a trusted parish priest.
"You can't just come out and announce to the parish this man you've respected for the last 20 years is a molester, or you revictimize the parish," Bishop Gregory said. "You can't reveal the victim, so that the anger of the parish community when they lose their pastor isn't transferred to the victim. And you have to do it in a way so that the priest who is removed doesn't despair" and bring harm to himself or others.
Bishop Gregory left open the possibility that his brother bishops will ultimately decide they must take action against the priests who have victimized someone years ago.
"Hear me, it's not that bishops aren't willing to do it, but we have to be pastors to everybody — pastors to the victims, pastors to the parish where the priest is working, and to the man himself," he said. "We're not trying to avoid doing the right thing. We're trying to do the right thing in the right way."