The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church



Results leave some disappointed

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/25/2002

They expressed their concern for children. They promised to crack down on abusive priests. They smiled for Connie Chung and Matt Lauer.

And in the end, the Roman Catholic Church's top American leaders wrapped up their two-day meeting at the Vatican having done exactly what they said they would do: They began discussions about a national policy on child protection to be finalized in June.

They did not, despite press reports to the contrary, formally discuss the future of Cardinal Bernard F. Law or other bishops whose leadership has been criticized.

They did not, despite the predictions of some cardinals, have a serious debate about priestly celibacy.

They could not even agree on details of a zero-tolerance policy, under which any priest who sexually abused a child would be automatically ousted.

Instead, the 12 US cardinals who met Tuesday and yesterday at the Vatican laid out a series of extremely traditional Catholic principles they expect the bishops of the United States to follow: Priests and bishops should be holier. Pastors should reprimand people who spread dissent. Seminaries should carefully screen applicants, and should insist on strict adherence to Catholic moral doctrine.

And they offered a handful of specific proposals: Expedite the process for defrocking abusive priests. Schedule a national day of prayer and penance.

The cardinals' focus on the narrow issue of what to do to about priests who abuse children, rather than what to do about bishops who protected those priests or about a system that allowed abusers to thrive, appalled many American observers.

''It was a bust,'' said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a priest whose early work on clergy sexual abuse in the 1980s was largely ignored by the bishops. ''I don't think they're capable of talking about the real issue, which is why did we cover this up?''

The Rev. James F. Keenan, a theologian at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, agreed.

''We've been in an archdiocese where Bishops Banks and McCormack and Hughes and Daily were all involved in all this decision-making that caused harm to lots of people and yet nowhere do you see the bishops saying, `We need to examine how we proceeded,''' Keenan said.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for victims of clergy sexual abuse, was furious.

''The real point, which was obviously completely lost, is that if you have a culture that is focused on returning deviant priests to the ministry, and those decisions are made by people at the highest level, and they are placing no emphasis on the protection of children, you have a real problem,'' MacLeish said. ''They should have been talking about leadership and secrecy and systemic reasons why the Roman Catholic Church has this problem.''

The cardinals did offer one acknowledgment of the role of bishops in the scandal, saying in a letter to priests that ''we regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal.''

And they did refer to priestly celibacy, but only to reaffirm its value, declaring in their communique that ''together with the fact that a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained, the meeting reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the church.''

But several theologians said the meeting's outcome should not have surprised anyone, given its relative brevity, the fact that it was not a full meeting of the nation's bishops, and that many church leaders have shown little interest in discussing broad issues of reform or accountability.

''It's clear that we're still in the middle of a process - we're not at the end point - so there are still discussions going on and still disagreements about some details,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. ''This was a two-day meeting, so they didn't have enough time to come to complete consensus, and the cardinals are not a decision-making body - that's the role of the bishops' conference.''

Numerous observers said the best thing about the gathering was that it happened at all - it was the first evidence that the Vatican, and the pope, take seriously the issue that is roiling Catholicism in the United States. But that will not be nearly enough for many.

''A lot of people are going to think the whole thing was just p.r.,'' said Stephen Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. ''They didn't recognize the international dimension of the problem, or the way an institutional ethos can create a climate in which moving priests around is acceptable, or the extent to which individual bishops made choices which were awful.''

The cardinals made several statements that theologians said were ambiguous but potentially controversial.

They called on church pastors ''publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care.'' That statement might be interpreted narrowly to refer to the need to reprimand people such as the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, a former Boston priest who had publicly supported sex between men and boys, but it might be interpreted more broadly, to apply to anyone supporting gay rights or any view that is out of step with church teaching.

''That means that anybody who indicates sexual activity by priests is permissible, or who allows for any loose interpretation of moral codes, should be reined in,'' said Chester Gillis, chairman of the Georgetown University theology department.

The cardinals also called for bishops to visit seminaries, ''giving special attention to their admission requirements and the need for them to teach Catholic moral doctrine in its integrity.''

Theologians said that statement might be code for an effort to restrict the entrance of gay men into seminaries, a subject now under discussion by Catholic leaders.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to