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Spotlight Report

Cardinals may face obstacles at summit

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/18/2002

The US cardinals who head to Rome to meet with the pope next week appear ready to go further than the American church has ever gone in tackling clergy sexual abuse, but their efforts are likely to face some resistance and are not expected to include any serious discussion of broad church reforms, Vatican observers say.

The extraordinary summit next Tuesday and Wednesday will provide an opportunity to publicly rebut the notion that the pope has failed to understand the breadth of the problem or the depth of Catholic anger.

Vatican officials, as well as the US cardinals, are likely to emerge with a statement reassuring the public of their united concern about the protection of children, meeting participants and observers say.

But the summit will also tackle the difficult task of setting parameters before all the American bishops gather in Dallas in June for a debate on abuse policy.

Observers say the Vatican, which is administered by cardinals even more conservative than the American prelates, will want to ensure that US bishops do not endanger the church's autonomy or violate its strong sense of confidentiality.

''Part of what the pope is doing is communicating that he understands. This is another one of his attempts to ... speak directly to people through the use of symbolism and gestures,'' said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''But at the level of content, these guys want to get into a locked room, with no TV camera, and talk out these issues. The real work is going to be done at the June meeting, but the last thing these guys want is for the Americans to do something in June that the Vatican would veto.''

After more than 15 years of declining to adopt a national policy on clergy sexual abuse, US bishops now seem poised in June to adopt rules for responding to abuse allegations that would be imposed on all the nation's Catholic dioceses.

Allen and others said that the cardinals will likely discuss the most sensitive aspects of those rules: whether the church should make it easier for bishops to defrock abusive priests, whether bishops should be required to inform police of abuse allegations, and whether bishops should publicly disclose their financial and legal handling of abuse.

But Vatican observers generally do not expect the cardinals to take up broader reform issues now being discussed by many laypeople, such as the role of women in the church, celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, and the process for selecting bishops.

Only one of the 13 American cardinals, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, has recently expressed a willingness to discuss the issue of clerical celibacy.

''For a lot of people in the church, the meeting is appreciated because they see that the Vatican is taking an interest, but I don't hold much hope for it because the cardinals involved have a track record: They're not exactly in the forefront of calling for any kind of reform of the church,'' said the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton. ''They may come up with some sort of statement about their desire to do better on the issue of pedophilia, but the issue now is more than just sexual misconduct. The other issue is the church itself, and I don't know if they're really willing to tackle that issue.''

One participant in next week's meeting, US Conference of Catholic Bishops Vice President William S. Skylstad, the bishop of Spokane, Wash., said he is prepared to advocate for nationwide mandatory reporting of clergy sexual abuse, citing his own positive experience in a state that requires priests to report allegations of abuse.

And he said he would support more openness with the news media and the public, saying ''I think we need to be as transparent as we can be,'' while still being sensitive to any victims who want their cases kept confidential.

Skylstad also said he is open to discussion of broad reform issues, including celibacy for priests, which he said ''has great merit'' but ''is not a closed issue.''

Skylstad said he does not know whether the cardinals and bishops who gather next week will discuss what to do about bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who have been accused of mishandling cases of sexually abusive priests.

''I don't know whether that's on the table, and it's a tough question that is not clear in my own mind,'' Skylstad said. ''But if the moral credibility of a bishop is permanently damaged, that can be very significant.''

Some American cardinals have begun speaking out in advance of the meeting. Cardinals Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and William H. Keeler of Baltimore said this week that they would support requiring bishops to report credible allegations of abuse to secular authorities.

Law has not spoken to reporters, but a spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said yesterday that the cardinal does not expect a national policy to emerge from the meeting, saying that it ''would be just mainly a meeting to have discussions, gather information, and try to come to an understanding of where they need to go. But ... he [Law] didn't see anything in a major, substantial way coming out of what was only a short, two-day meeting.''

Among the participants in the gathering will be Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Fordham University theologian who is the only US cardinal who is not a bishop and who had not initially been invited to the meeting. Dulles said yesterday that he has now been invited and plans to attend.

''When you analyze this on purely political terms, one has to wonder what can come out of this,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theologian. ''If they give the usual rationalizations - that it's primarily an American problem, that it's media-driven, that these are old cases and that most bishops have already addressed it - then the problem is not going to go away and the Catholic faithful and Catholic priests are still going to be very upset.''

Some US Catholics will be watching how the cardinals handle the issue of whether Law or others should resign.

''It seems to me there is mounting pressure for the cardinal's resignation,'' said the Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, pastor of St. Bernard Church in Newton. ''Hopefully the cardinals will look at the question of whether there have to be some resignations, or whether we're going to hunker down and weather the storm. It sounds like they're not sure either.''

Others are concerned that the Vatican may focus on the issue of gay priests, since one Vatican department is now debating a proposed ban on gay seminarians.

''I don't expect much from this meeting,'' said the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of ''The Changing Face of the Priesthood.''

''My hunch is that they will be told to face `the moral laxity in the priesthood and in our seminaries' and to exclude gays from admission,'' he said. ''This is a moral problem in the eyes of the Vatican. To admit it has systemic/structural dimensions is almost unthinkable to them.''

Thomas Farragher of the Globe Staff contributed to this report from Boston and correspondent Jason Horowitz contributed from Rome. Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2002.
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