The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church



The Vatican's role


YESTERDAY'S DECISION by Pope John Paul II to summon the American cardinals to the Vatican is an encouraging sign that church leaders will give serious consideration to the tectonic effects of the church's mishandling of child sexual abuse by its priests. The call to Rome came just two days after the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced, following a visit with the pope and other church leaders, that the Vatican was leaving it up to US church leaders to resolve the scandal.

That statement Saturday by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory was a dispiriting indication that the Vatican viewed the covering up of child sexual abuse and the reassigning guilty priests as a largely American phenomenon - and not a terribly significant one, at that. The pope has referred to the scandal only in two vague mentions, one in his Easter message, the other during a Holy Thursday Mass.

The Vatican's approach has changed in the last few days. By bringing to Rome the American cardinals, including Boston's beleaguered Bernard Law, John Paul should get firsthand accounts of the toll the scandal has taken on American Catholics' trust in their leaders.

That toll includes the leaders' diminished ability to raise the funds that are central to the church's historic mission of ministering to the poor and sick. In Boston, the erosion of trust is so pronounced that Law's effectiveness has been crippled, and he should ask the pope to be excused from his duties here.

The meeting of John Paul and the cardinals ought to produce an agreement that the church will no longer shield abusive clerics from criminal prosecution and try to cover up their misdeeds through reassignment to new parishes, where officials have often been given no knowledge of their past records. While this newspaper and other US media have uncovered many egregious examples of such conduct, enough similar cases have surfaced elsewhere in the world that the Vatican should not see this as an exclusively American problem.

The church has shown a deep-rooted propensity for maintaining the image of priestly rectitude over the protection of children. The cardinals will serve their church well if they make clear that the new policies of handling pedophile priests should be for the church as a whole, not just for its US dioceses.

One heartening message that the cardinals can bring to John Paul is that in Boston, at least, the scandal appears to have fostered a new willingness by Catholic laity to become more involved in their parishes, bringing with them such basic questions as whether it still makes sense to have an all-male, celibate priesthood - a question raised by the Archdiocese itself in its newspaper The Pilot.

The Catholic Church may be at a turning point. If it takes an attitude of openness toward reform rather than defensiveness, the current crisis should lead to needed change - at least in the way the church handles charges of criminal conduct by its priests.

This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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