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Pope backs study of abusive priests

Pope John Paul II has appointed a committee to study whether to make it easier to dismiss sexually abusive clergy from the priesthood.

The new committee will comprise Vatican and U.S. Roman Catholic Church officials. Formed at the request of U.S. bishops, it will examine whether the church's five-year statute of limitations on dismissals can be lifted in cases involving sexual abuse of minors, church officials said Monday.

The panel also will study whether to raise the age when individuals are considered minors from 16 to 18, and whether abusive priests can be dismissed even if their actions resulted from mental illness, said Deacon Christopher Baumann, a spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

In a letter to U.S. bishops released Monday, the pope said he had become aware of how much U.S. Catholics are suffering because of clergy scandals.

"I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt by these misdeeds," the pope said.

Last week, leaders of the 55-million-member Catholic Church in the United States established a committee of bishops to address the problem of pedophiliac priests.

There has been no systematic study of such cases, but author Jason Berry says more than 400 Catholic priests in North America have been reported for molesting children since 1984. The Rev. Canice Connors, chairman of the church-sponsored panel, said 2 percent to 4 percent of Catholic priests over the past 30 years may have been guilty of abuse.

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