One of the United States' most senior cardinals says the Catholic Church has learned its lesson after paying out US$1.7 billion ($2.3 billion) in legal costs and settlements for sexual abuse by priests and other church officials.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who arrived in Auckland yesterday to speak at a eucharistic convention this weekend, said the Church in the US now had a policy of "zero tolerance" towards any priest found guilty of any sexual offence against achild.
"If there is one proven case of a priest or religious worker who has improperly dealt with a child, then that person is removed."
A report by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops this week said the Church spent almost US$400 million last year alone on settlements, legal fees, and therapy for victims and offenders.
The number of new claims has dropped from 1092 in 2004, but there were 714 new claims last year. Eighty per cent of the claimants were male, and the majority of claims related to alleged abuses between 1960 and 1984.
Cardinal McCarrick, 76, who retired last year as Archbishop of Washington, DC, said Catholic priests had been caught up in the climate of loose sexual morality in society generally in the 1960s and 70s.
He said the 60s were a time "when anything goes". "It was Woodstock, people were smoking marijuana, and the sexual mores went down as all mores went down."
It was also true that the problem had always existed "and that we have become aware of it just recently".
"Now, having become aware of it, we have tried to do the very best we can to ensure that it doesn't happen."
He said the Church had accepted responsibility for what had happened and "apologised from its very heart to all those people affected".
But he denied that the problem was worse in the Catholic Church than elsewhere because of priests' vows of celibacy.
"Unfortunately it is existing in religious bodies that have married clergy to, at least, the same extent, from what we have been able to figure out.
"When all is said and done, you are still talking about less than one out of 25 priests over a period of 60 years.
"When civil society finally accepts the challenge of making its own statistical survey as carefully and thoroughly as the Catholic Church has, I think we will find that the statistics of the Church are nowhere near as bad as the statistics of the rest of society."
He said Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed last month that priests should remain celibate because Jesus himself was celibate - "despite what The Da Vinci Code and the people who believe in it seem to be saying".
"We believe this is the kind of sacrifice that gives a man the ability to be more like the Lord."
He said sexual abuse was much less likely in the Church in future because all candidates for the priesthood now had to undergo psychological tests for potential abuse, a priest who abused a child would be instantly dismissed, and children were now educated to be alert for any improper behaviour by adults.By Simon Collins Email Simon