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Spotlight Report

Pope summons US cardinals on crisis

New attention to sexual abuse

By Michael Paulson and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 4/16/2002

In a dramatic acknowledgment of the severity of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the Vatican yesterday summoned US cardinals to Rome next week to discuss the evolving crisis.

The gathering of the cardinals, who are among the pope's top advisers and who oversee many of the nation's largest dioceses, signals a new level of focus by the Vatican, which has previously left it to the US church to sort out the problem.

''Bringing together this level of church leadership in Rome on this most serious issue is the right move at the right time,'' Cardinal Adam J. Maida, archbishop of Detroit, said in a statement. ''So much has been happening so fast in various dioceses around the United States and elsewhere that I welcome this opportunity to be able to reflect and react in this collegial setting.''

The meeting, to be held next Tuesday and Wednesday, appears to be without precedent in terms of the urgency with which the cardinals have been summoned and the focus on a single scandal. The most similar recent event was in 1989, when the pope brought all American archbishops, a much larger group, to Rome to discuss the state of the US church.

''This is very important, because it indicates that there's an understanding at the Vatican that this is a crisis that should be at the top of the agenda and that deserves emergency treatment,'' said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an Internet site that broke the news of the Vatican meeting. ''I can't think of any precedent at all.''

There are 13 US cardinals, but yesterday it appeared that only 11 are likely to attend the meeting - the eight who head US archdioceses and the three who head Vatican agencies. Cardinal James A. Hickey, the 81-year-old retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., is too frail to attend, while Cardinal Avery Dulles, an 83-year-old theologian at Fordham University and the only American cardinal who is not a bishop, said he has not received an invitation.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who has been in seclusion for more than a week amid criticism of his own handling of sexual abuse charges against priests and a clamor for his resignation, is planning to attend the meeting, according to a principal adviser, accompanied by his chief secretary and his communications director.

Law's own future is not expected to be a subject of the meeting, although the cardinals will likely discuss how to handle church leaders who allowed priests accused of abuse to remain in service, the adviser said.

Last week, Law relayed to the office of the Papal Nuncio in Washington that he thought he should resign, but the cardinal was asked not to submit his resignation until the pope and his top aides can deliberate about how to proceed, the adviser said.

''The hope is to establish a policy that will go beyond the United States and affect every country,'' the adviser said.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Law did not celebrate his regular Mass on Sunday and has canceled a meeting of the Presbyteral Council, a representative body of priests, on Thursday.

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., and the vice president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., will also attend the Rome meeting next week. Gregory and Skylstad met with the pope in Rome last Tuesday, and emerged saying that the Vatican was leaving it to US church leaders to manage the crisis.

''This speaks to the sense of urgency Rome feels in trying to address the situation here,'' Skylstad said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. ''This is a very serious time here in the American church, and it's also a great moment of opportunity. People who are in very strong leadership positions can assess the situation and see what can be done, and hopefully there will be some indications of a general plan for the future.''

Skylstad, who just returned from Rome on Sunday, said it was not clear whether the pope would participate in the meetings, but that ''he has a great sense of compassion for everyone involved - the victims, the families, and the many good priests who are hurt and embarrassed by what has happened.''

The invitation for next week's meeting came not from the pope himself, but from Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who oversees the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican department that oversees clergy around the world. Castrillon, who is from Colombia, is the only Vatican official to hold a news conference on the clergy sexual abuse issue this year, but he refused to respond to specific questions.

''There is a danger of having excessively high expectations of what can come from this meeting,'' said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. ''Obviously, the pope cannot micromanage the priest personnel policies of every diocese in the US. But the cardinals could float ideas with the pope and get his reactions. When the bishops meet in Dallas in June, it would be very helpful to have some idea of what proposals would have the backing of the pope.''

Jason Berry, the author of a book on the clergy sexual abuse issue, said the gathering reflects the fact that the matter has become a crisis for Pope John Paul II. More than 1,000 American priests have been accused of abusing thousands of minors over the last five decades, and litigation over the cases is costing the church hundreds of millions of dollars.

''He has a hierarchy in the US that has been terribly discredited, and the weight of public opinion is hard upon these men,'' Berry said. ''There has been little effective leadership and guidance from Rome, and basically these men are going to sit in a room and come up with a policy for damage control.''

Advocates for victims were pleased to see the Vatican taking the issue of clergy sexual abuse seriously, but were wary of how much a group of cardinals could accomplish.

''We're slightly encouraged, because any time the issue is discussed there is some benefit, but by the same token, we're not optimistic that anything substantive will come out of the meeting, given the painful reality that these men are largely responsible for the situation as it now exists,'' said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. ''Ultimately the solution to this problem is going to have to be much more inclusive. We have to realize that the Vatican's involvement to date has been minimal at best and very disappointing at worst, so the Vatican's involvement is not necessarily a good thing.''

''It appears as though the pope has at least begun to address the issue,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented scores of people who say they are victims of sexual abuse by priests. ''Hopefully, the meeting will lead to some sort of prevention of child abuse in the future and help those who have been victimized in the past.''

Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, said: ''It does indicate that the Vatican is not silent... I expect this will be positive, because everybody knows how deep and awful this is.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2002.
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