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Discordant cultures to meet in the Apostolic Palace

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, and Jason Horowitz, Globe Correspondent, 4/23/2002

VATICAN CITY - In the Apostolic Palace in a room called the Sala Bologna under an 18th century tapestry of the Last Supper, the American leaders of the Catholic Church will take their places today at leather, high-backed chairs around an oak table for a historic gathering in the Holy See.

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The eight visiting American cardinals, three resident American cardinals, and two American bishops were summoned by Pope John Paul II to participate in a kind of collective soul searching and a desperate scramble to restore credibility to a hierarchy that stands accused of mismanaging a widening priest sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the American Catholic Church.

The Vatican has called emergency meetings before. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII summoned German cardinals to counter the Reformation, nearly 60 years after Martin Luther's movement had begun. In the 1990s, the pope held a synod on the Christian response to the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, but it was years after the conflict ended.

What makes this gathering unique, Vatican observers say, is its relatively immediate response to a crisis; it is as if the Vatican has finally entered the split-second world of damage control in the information age.

This distinctly American culture of accountability is already clashing with the Vatican's culture of deference. The planned daily media briefings by the American clerics after each morning and afternoon session are classic American attempts at managing information.

Yesterday, an American nun, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deftly brokered deals with bookers flown in by ABC News' ''Nightline,'' and NBC's ''Today,'' and other top network news magazine shows: it was parochial school meets ''Broadcast News.''

The large conference room where the meeting will take place is located near the papal residence, enabling the frail, 81-year-old pope to preside over the proceedings. John Paul II will join the assembled cardinals and bishops in the prayer of Adsumus (We Have Come) before Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, officially opens the talks.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops who is slated to speak first from among the American delegation, said, ''We've passed the time for mea culpas, it's the season for action.''

Among the top Vatican officials who will be overseeing the meeting are Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re of the Congregation for Bishops.

They are viewed as archconservatives and have in the past largely viewed priestly sexual abuse as an American phenomenon, even though similar scandals have occurred in Ireland, France, Poland, Africa, Australia, and Canada.

Castrillon recently described the sexual abuse problem in American tones, saying that it had developed in a culture of ''pansexuality and sexual licentiousness.''

Gregory said that the American leadership had begun to change Castrillon's thinking and it had urged him to understand that although an aggressive civil court system and a scrutinizing media helped bring the problem to light in the United States, it did not make it a purely American phenomenon and that the issue required the Vatican's full attention.

Vatican observers say the goal of the summit is to begin preparing a set of standards for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct brought against priests and how, if the allegations are substantiated, they should be reported to law enforcement authorities.

This is expected to be a point of contention between the American clerics and the Vatican officials who will be participating in the meeting. The Vatican is concerned that such a uniform policy of reporting allegations could undercut the relationship of trust between priests and their superiors.

The American leaders will be seeking Vatican approval on their policies so that they can take them to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops gathering in Dallas in June and mandate their implementation in an attempt to restore confidence among members.

It is unlikely that the bishop will put topics such as priestly vows of celibacy or the ordination of women (issues still considered taboo) on the agenda between the American prelates and the pontiff.

''This is a meeting to focus in on the question of the safety of children. Peripheral issues will perhaps be treated in another forum. We are not here to rewrite the Catholic Church, its teachings, its doctrines, and its disciplines,'' said Gregory.

The American cardinals will also have the opportunity to speak about the issue that has rocked their congregations and for some, their credibility. Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, will speak first.

Law will be followed by cardinals Roger Michael Mahony of Los Angeles, Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, William Henry Keeler of Baltimore, Adam Joseph Maida of Detriot, Francis Eugene George of Chicago, Theodore Edgar McCarrick of Washington, and Edward Michael Egan of New York.

The four other American cardinals present are Avery Dulles, a Fordham University scholar, and retired cardinals James Stafford, William Baum, and Edmund Szoka, who direct curial departments in Rome.

Another American cardinal, 81-year-old James Aloysius Hickey, was too frail to attend.

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2002.
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