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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

Pope must take action


To his credit, Pope John Paul II will address the sexual abuse scandal in the church when he meets with American archbishops beginning tomorrow.

Even before the clerics have made it to Rome, the spin has begun. Last week, some bishops accused the news media of exaggerating the scandal in a salacious feeding frenzy. Some Vatican-watchers, noting that only American clerics have been summoned, see a subplot that will characterize sexual abuse as an ''American'' problem, despite allegations of sexual misconduct in Africa, Europe, and Latin America as well. Already, the pope has swatted down any suggestion that he will reconsider the doctrine of celibacy.

Whatever the consequences for church doctrine, one thing must absolutely come out of this summit: moral clarity. That might seem obvious, until you consider how hard it has been to come by so far.

The pope must make it clear that the old rules of conduct are being tossed out and that in both word and deed, zero tolerance is the new law of the church. No one has any idea whether he is ready to say that. But it is the only kind of leadership that holds any hope for redemption now.

Astonishingly, revelations keep coming, nearly four months into this crisis. The latest in the dreary series came on Saturday. The New York Times reported that the Rev. Enrique Diaz Jiminez received a glowing recommendation from his bishop in New York, the Rev. Thomas Daily, even as he faced criminal charges there. Jiminez went to Venezuela, where he allegedly continued abusing boys. His priest's license was finally suspended for 20 years, though the allegations against him were never reported to Venezuelan authorities.

Facing a steady drumbeat of allegations, cardinals and bishops have struggled to explain their actions, let alone defend them. Cardinal Bernard F. Law blamed his woes, in part, on inadequate record keeping. Cardinal Edward M. Egan, in New York, sent a letter to parishioners, but without quite admitting that he had done anything wrong. Actually, his explanation - that he had acted on the best information he had at the time - echoed the one offered by Law two months ago.

That's awfully muted penance. Everyone who has been touched by this scandal needs a far stronger message than that.

We need to know when the bishops emerge from the Holy See that the old rule book has been thrown out. We need to know that priests who sexually abuse minors will be kicked out of the priesthood and will face legal sanctions if warranted. We need to know, clearly, that the coddling of them by bishops will no longer be tolerated. We need to believe that this is really the beginning of the end.

Nothing that happens in Rome will make this crisis magically go away. Many victims remain to be settled with, and the church must also make a firm commitment, nationwide, to reporting allegations of sexual abuse to authorities, even at the expense of embarrassment to the church.

By some accounts, Law was discouraged from resigning for fear of setting a bad precedent. Actually, it may be absolutely imperative that some bishops be removed for their failures of leadership. That might send a stronger message than anything else the pope could do.

This is a historic moment. The moral authority of the church has been leaking away for months now, to the point that only one person has any hope of restoring it.

The church turned a blind eye to abuse for years. This must be the week that veil of secrecy gets lifted, once and for all.

Adrian Walker's e-mail address is

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2002.
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