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Spotlight Report

President weighs in on church scandal

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 5/29/2002

ROME - After sidestepping the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church for months, President Bush raised the topic during his meeting yesterday with Pope John Paul II, telling the Holy Father that he was ''concerned about the Catholic Church in America.''

Bush saw the pontiff at the Vatican on the final day of his four-nation European tour.

Before going into his closed-door meeting with the pope, Bush said: ''I will tell him that I am concerned about the Catholic Church in America, I'm concerned about its standing. And I say that because the Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution in our country.''

White House officials later confirmed that Bush had conveyed the message ''in the way he said he would.'' He and the pope met alone, without any aides or translators.

The comments marked a shift in policy for the Bush administration, which has been sidestepping the controversy out of fear of offending mainstream Catholic voters or the church hierarchy. Long before the scandal became public, senior White House adviser Karl Rove, who joined Bush at the Vatican yesterday, had devised an aggressive strategy to court faithful Catholic voters, who were split evenly between Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election.

Bush last addressed the priest sexual abuse crisis publicly in March, when he described Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston as a ''man of integrity'' and expressed confidence the church would handle the matter appropriately. Law has visited the White House several times since Bush took office, though not since allegations surfaced that he had shielded priests accused of abusing children or adolescents.

Before Bush left for Europe, his advisers had insisted he would not raise the matter with the pope. After the 20-minute meeting yesterday, White House officials were particularly careful in their descriptions of the meeting, objecting when one reporter offhandedly described Bush as having mentioned the ''sex scandal.''

Italian security forces formed a blanket around the meeting, offering Bush a massive, 50-car motorcade. White House officials said he declined, opting for a smaller protection unit. Bush was shielded similarly throughout his European trip, coming no closer than 10 blocks to protesters in Berlin, where tens of thousands had massed last week.

The 82-year-old pope, welcoming Bush to the Vatican, appeared frail and weak, but displayed a sense of humor, pretending to shield his face from flashbulbs when a throng of photographers entered the room. The Vatican has said the pontiff may not make many more foreign visits, after a recent trip to Bulgaria and Azerbaijan left him exhausted.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope ''wanted to express, despite difficulty of the moment, his faith in the spiritual resources of American Catholics committed to bear witness to the values of the Gospel in society.''

When Bush last mentioned the sex abuse scandal, Law had just handed over a list of accused priests to authorities, and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York was beginning to draw fire for not adequately disciplining priests in his own diocese. Since then, the controversy has mushroomed, leading to several arrests and hundreds more accusations.

In his earlier comments, Bush seemed supportive of the hierarchy, despite reports that church officials were protecting priests who committed crimes. Asked to comment on the ongoing scandal on March 13, Bush said, ''Well, I know many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; I know them to be men of integrity and decency.''

''They're honorable people,'' Bush said. ''I was just with Cardinal Egan today. And I'm confident the church will clean up its business and do the right thing. As to the timing, I haven't, frankly - I'm not exactly aware of the - how fast or how not fast they're moving. I just can tell you I trust the leadership of the church.''

Asked whether Law should resign, Bush said at the time: ''That's up to the Church. I know Cardinal Law to be a man of integrity. I respect him a lot.''

It was unclear whether his remarks yesterday were intended to distance the White House from the church crisis without appearing to scorn the hierarchy. But Bush strategists have made no secret of their desire to win favor among Catholics, especially after he offended some faithful with his visit to Bob Jones University, some of whose leaders have made anti-Catholic remarks, during the 2000 South Carolina primary. Catholics made up one-quarter of the electorate in 2000; in 1996, President Clinton won the Catholic vote by 16 percentage points over his Republican opponent, Bob Dole.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 5/29/2002.
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