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Top archbishop suggests ways to deal with abusive priests

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NEWARK, N.J. -- A top U.S. archbishop, recently named to the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the panel of cardinals and bishops could help resolve a key issue in the clergy sex abuse scandal: how to remove priests from ministry who abused children decades ago.

Under the church's Code of Canon Law, the statute of limitation for clergy sex abuse of minors expires 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday. In older cases, a bishop can ask the Vatican to bypass that rule, but Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., said he wants to explore ways for bishops to act in such matters without asking Rome.

One possibility for these older cases, Myers said, would be a canon law change that treats molestation and sexual abuse of minors more as an illness than as a violation requiring a penalty. That would allow a bishop to more easily deem these priests unfit for ministry, he said.

"We used to think of alcoholism as a moral failure, and now it's pretty much considered an illness," said Myers, 66. "I'm not saying that's what will happen [with clergy sex abuse of minors], but it wouldn't be impossible for us to move in that direction.

"If we can find a way to work it so we don't have to apply [for removal] in each instance, but we can make the judgment locally, that would be better," he said of bishops acting without making requests to the Vatican.

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Last month, during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, The New York Times reported that Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that church authorities are considering changing canon law on the statute of limitations regarding clergy sex abuse of minors.

David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said he favored "anything that speeds up removing a predator from ministry," but he cautioned that such a reliance on church procedures puts undeserved faith in bishops' discretion.

What are needed, he said, are stronger civil and criminal statutes of limitation, which now vary from state to state.

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