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Spotlight Report

  Mary McGrory  

Church still defensive, not penitent


THE AGE-OLD formula for a sinner seeking absolution in a Catholic confessional - ''Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned'' - has been revised during the current scandal.

On the eve of the 12 US cardinals' summit in Rome, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York issued a letter to the faithful in which he changed the formulation to ''Forgive me, Father, I may have sinned.''

His Eminence went into the passive voice and the subjunctive mood often favored by people in high office who would rather not be discussing the subject at hand. In Egan's case, it was his record as a bishop in Connecticut and New York, where, it is reported, he consistently reassigned pedophiles to various parishes. It was the same shuffle-and-cover-up method used by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose resignation has been clamorously urged in his home diocese and, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been surreptitiously discussed by his brother cardinals.

Egan's conditional apology would not be accepted in most confessionals and fell far short of the candor and contrition that many Catholics hoped for. ''If in hindsight, we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.''

The ''modified, limited hangout'' route made famous in Watergate seems to be operative in Rome. The pope, in a weak and halting voice, told the assembled red hats things they already knew, such as that pedophilia is not only a crime but also ''an appalling sin in the eyes of God.'' He offered them ambiguous advice as to the remedy, counseling ''zero tolerance'' and at the same time an unshaken belief in redemption. Law's presence at the table implied an approval of the methods that so outraged Boston Catholics that their cardinal can go nowhere without being picketed.

The degree of regret and remorse among the red capes is trifling when measured against one of history's most celebrated penitents, Henry II of England, who in 1162 fell into a bitter dispute over the jurisdictions of ecclesiastical and royal courts. He had - inadvertently, he said - condemned Thomas, the archbishop of Canterbury. He cried out, ''Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?'' Four knights-at-arms immediately saw it as their duty to do the troublesome priest in, and rode to Canterbury to kill Thomas a Becket as he said Mass at the high altar.

Henry II didn't use any ifs, ands, or buts in undertaking to seek forgiveness. He did not claim that a lament had been misinterpreted as an order or that overzealous underlings were to blame. He said that he had done wrong and that he would make amends.

And he did. He walked barefoot to Thomas a Becket's church, the cathedral at Canterbury. He submitted to being scourged by the monks. He changed his way of doing business, restoring independence to church courts.

In Rome, in the papal palace, the mood was defensive rather than penitential. The faithful who were waiting for justice and enlightenment must accept the fact of the meeting as more important than what was said or done.

The greatest pity is that no victims were there to hear the pope's apology for the unspeakable wrongs that had been done to them by men whom they had been brought up to respect. The victims tend to get lost while their clerical elders discuss the tragedy in political terms. The speculation about Law is that the pope keeps him because his resignation might start a domino effect. The three or four lieutenants who carried out the cardinal's orders might have to go, too, producing major Vatican embarrassment.

A seething laity would like to know a few things, for instance: Why did the hierarchy cling to the perfidious priests whom one cardinal called ''moral monsters''? Was it because there are so few priests that they felt they had to hang on to the perverts and protect them, even though it meant risking what they feared most, ''giving scandal to the church''? Or was it because they did not regard molestation of children as that serious, referring to it as ''a dumb thing'' or a ''lapse''?

No one, at least in public, quoted Christ's view of the matter as reported in Luke 17:2: ''It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.''

Mary McGrory is a syndicated columnist.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 4/27/2002.
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