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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

They ignore the future


T t is not His Eminence who must go; it's His Holiness.

The resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law might restore the shattered trust of the faithful in the Archdiocese of Boston, but there will be no lasting reform in the Roman Catholic Church until the tenure of Pope John Paul II ends.

Any hope that the reigning pontiff could be the agent of change in these terrible times vanished last week when he proved unable or unwilling even to name the crime for which so many of his priests stand accused across the world. In the three spare sentences he devoted to the sexual abuse scandals in his 22-page Easter letter to priests, he referred only obliquely, and in a dead language, to "the most grievous mysterium iniquitatis -- mystery of evil -- at work in the world."

As victims of abuse look to be embraced by their church, the pope chose instead to extend his pastoral hand to innocent priests upon whom "a dark shadow of suspicion is cast." The victims he relegated to a subordinate clause, citing the need "to respond in truth and justice in each of these painful situations."

Only Raymond L. Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and US ambassador to the Vatican in the Clinton administration, could read such a tepid response as an "ultimatum" from Rome "that abuse will not be tolerated."

The tendency of Americans to see themselves as the center of the universe is no less pronounced in the scandals now washing across Catholic dioceses in the United States. However, the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is not a US phenomenon, and solutions rest not in Brighton or New York, but in Rome, where the pope and the power reside.

In January, the church in Ireland agreed to pay $110 million to victims of abuse by Catholic clergy. In Australia, England, the South Pacific, and France, there are mounting allegations of similar betrayals by priests. Only last Sunday, the pulpits of Poland rang with the denials of Archbishop Juliusz Poetz, who stands accused of molesting young seminarians.

If the ailing 81-year-old pontiff cannot bear to name the crimes perpetrated by his priests, surely he is not the man to end those crimes. It's ironic: John Paul was once thought to be the first thoroughly modern pope. He skied. He recorded compact discs, published his poetry, and traveled widely.

But, for all his worldliness, Pope John Paul II is wedded to a narrow, authoritarian view of the church that is fast becoming as much a relic as Latin. The windows Pope John XXIII threw open, Pope John Paul II slammed shut. The young prelate who fought authoritarianism in Poland became the pope who defrocked priests for doing the same in Latin America. The pope who stood with the shipyard workers in Gdansk denounced the priests who stood with the peasants in Nicaragua.

In the name of justice, Pope John Paul II confronted the church's historic anti-Semitism but will not acknowledge its inherent sexism. The priesthood he fights to protect from the debasing influence of women and married men is collapsing all around the world, as vocations dry up and flocks go untended by the shrinking pool of healthy, celibate men.

The Catholic Church likes to remind its members that it is not a participatory democracy. The mere suggestion in The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, that celibacy and the ordination of women might be worthy subjects of inquiry brought an immediate and sharp rebuke from Law. The pope, he said, has made clear that those matters are not open to discussion.

Whether the hierarchy likes it or not, those issues are being discussed, in parish halls and in online chat rooms, where the fate of the church is being debated excitedly by the faithful. The pope and his cardinals can cling to the past, but they ignore the voices of the future at their own peril. The absolute power that flows from the magisterium in Rome was not divinely ordained. Men created it, and men and women will change it, even if they have to wait for Pope John Paul II to pass into history to do so.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.
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