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Abuses Distress High-Ranking Vatican Boss

Apr 21, 2002 | Detroit Free Press

Years after he was forced to discipline priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, former Detroit Cardinal Edmund Szoka said he is ashamed and embarrassed by the revelations rocking the Catholic Church.

"I in no way excuse what these priests have done. ... We condemn it. We're doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again," Szoka said in an interview last week.

Szoka, now a high-ranking Vatican administrator, said he handled few cases of priests accused of molesting minors when he led the Archdiocese of Detroit from 1981 to 1990.

In one case, he said, he removed a priest and convinced him to leave the priesthood after a victim's family complained anonymously. The priest admitted the abuse. Szoka said he does not know the victim's name to this day.

In another case, parents of molested boys went to police, leading to the arrest and conviction of the Rev. Lawrence Nawrocki, then pastor of St. Isidore Church in Macomb Township. Nawrocki spent several years in prison in the early 1990s.

Szoka is one of a dozen American cardinals who will meet at the Vatican on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the sex-abuse scandal and charges that church leaders failed to remove predatory priests for decades.

In Detroit, Szoka established a policy in 1988 on dealing with such accusations, among the first U.S. dioceses to do so. Szoka called every priest to a meeting to explain the guidelines, which included never taking youngsters on vacations or to a priest's room alone or on unchaperoned outings. Szoka also set up a committee of advisers to evaluate cases.

Since 1988, archdiocesan officials say, they have investigated about 18 priests and disciplined 12 to 15 of them because of credible evidence they molested children. The archdiocese currently has about 800 priests.

U.S. dioceses now pledge that sex-abuse accusations will be reported to civil authorities, but Szoka said that may prevent some victims from coming forward.

"Parents would discuss this only on the condition that we didn't report it," he said. "They didn't want that stigma."

In 1990, Pope John Paul II called Szoka to the Vatican and put him in charge of getting its finances and budget in order. Szoka was known as a cost-cutter during his decade of leadership in Detroit, where he closed more than 30 parishes with dwindling memberships, a move replicated in other big cities.

At the Vatican, Szoka made headlines when he got rid of multimillion-dollar deficits, balanced budgets and even recorded surpluses.

In 1997, the pope appointed Szoka to the post of president of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, the equivalent of being governor of the church's headquarters. He is the top boss for 1,400 employees of the world's smallest independent nation.

But on Sept. 14, his 75th birthday, Szoka, like all top Vatican officials, must turn in his resignation to the pope. The pope usually doesn't accept a resignation immediately, so Szoka could stay in his post another year or two.

"I'll do whatever the pope wants," Szoka said.

During the four or five times a year when he sees the pope on official business, Szoka said they speak in Italian. But for informal meetings, when the pope invites Szoka for a midday meal, they speak in Polish, which Szoka learned from his parents.

On Thursday, Szoka will fly back to Detroit for the archdiocese's annual ordination of new priests. He still has an apartment at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.

At the Vatican, his centrally located apartment has a view of the back of the Michelangelo-designed St. Peter's Basilica from one window and the magnificent Vatican gardens from the other. Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida will stay at Szoka's residence during his visit this week.

They will be less than a five-minute walk from the Apostolic Palace meeting room where the American cardinals will confer around a long table, equipped with microphones, in twice-a-day sessions Tuesday and Wednesday.

The official schedule doesn't indicate the pope will be at the table with them for these meetings, but the powerful heads of three Vatican departments are expected to be there.

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