By convening a summit meeting with U.S. cardinals, the Vatican has sent the strongest signal to date that it views the clergy sex abuse scandals as a grave crisisnot just for the dioceses involved but for the entire church in the United States. At the same time, officials in Rome cautioned against expecting too much from the April 23-24 meeting. It was described in a communique as a working session that would bring together U.S. cardinals and the heads of Vatican congregations that deal with clergy, doctrine and bishops. Vatican sources said it would be exactly that. It’s pretty straightforward: there’s a horrific problem in the United States. These are the Holy See’s trusted advisers. They’re going to huddle, talk about what the problem is and see how they can fix it, said one Vatican official.
The two-sentence Vatican announcement said the purpose of the meeting was to examine problems that have been created in the church in the United States following scandals connected with pedophilia and to indicate guiding principles with the aim of returning safety and serenity to the families and trust to the clergy and faithful.
The Vatican will not be offering a magic solution or a new set of norms to deal with clerical sex abuse, but considers this meeting one step in a long recovery process, other Vatican sources said. The meeting has been painted in various colors by the mass media: as a summons or calling-to-account by a displeased Pope John Paul II, as a sudden Vatican intervention on an issue that has spun out of control, or as a chance for the Vatican to give marching orders to the U.S. hierarchy.
But Vatican sources described the meeting in much less dramatic terms. It’s a consultation, an exchange of ideas. These cardinals are experienced pastors, and they’re not coming all this way just to take ABC lessons from the Holy See, said one Vatican official.
Another informed source said the meeting would try to look ahead at strategies for rebuilding confidence in the church rather than dwell on past mistakes. They’re not bringing the cardinals to Rome to castigate them. There’s no chance of that, said one official.
Calling cardinals and bishops to Rome is unusual, although it has been done before to examine pastoral problems in places like Brazil, the Netherlands, Lebanon and Australia. U.S. cardinals and archbishops were convened in 1989 to discuss a wide range of questions related to evangelization in a pluralistic society. What sets the April meeting apart is the narrow focus of the agenda and the suddenness of its preparation.
Summoning all of the U.S. cardinals to Rome on such short notice is unprecedented, said Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor in chief of America and author of Inside the Vatican. Father Reese said he thinks the pope wants direct input from the cardinals on the issue of clerical sex abuse. But he also warned of excessively high expectations from the summit. Obviously, the pope cannot micromanage the priest personnel policies of every diocese in the U.S. But the cardinals could float ideas with the pope and get his reactions. When the bishops meet in Dallas in June, it would be very helpful to have some idea of what proposals would have the backing of the pope, Father Reese said.
The timeline for future steps was sketched out by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after he met with the pope and other Vatican officials in early April. When the U.S. bishops meet in June, they are expected to debate the adoption of a comprehensive national policy on sex abuse cases and whether to make this policy binding on all bishops.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Gregory said many bishops now feel the time is right for such a move, especially in light of mistakes that have been made. He said his talks at the Vatican had left him with the impression that Rome is open to consideration of such a policy, but would have to see specifics. Traditionally, he said, the Vatican has been wary of any policy that would usurp the individual bishop’s right to govern and pastorally guide his own diocese.
I did not sense in any of the conversations I had, either formally or informally, an absolute rejection of a comprehensive [national] policy. But again, the devil is in the details, Bishop Gregory said. Another crucial and controversial issue facing the bishops will be whether to rule out reassigning to public ministry priests who have committed sexual abuse, he said.
Bishop Gregory said the recommendations that come out of the June meeting may have to go back to the Vatican for approval. But the meeting at the Vatican in Aprilwhich Bishop Gregory also will attendmay offer an early indication of Vatican thinking on possible policy changes in the United States.
The Vatican’s interest, however, goes beyond policy details regarding priests and dioceses. Officials are concerned about the wider repercussions of the scandal: its impact on U.S. Catholics’ trust in their pastors, their level of support for church-run institutions and schools, and even their respect for the Vatican and the pope.
During Pope John Paul’s working lunch with top U.S.C.C.B. officials on April 9, the pontiff did not delve into details of the sex abuse cases. Instead, he inquired in particular about the spirit of American Catholics in the face of the scandals, Bishop Gregory said. The pope also seemed aware that the current crisis makes the church vulnerable to those who are pushing an anti-church agenda. Those wider implications of the sex abuse cases also seemed reflected in the brief Vatican statement announcing the April meeting, which said it would discuss ways of restoring a sense of safety, serenity and trust to the church in the United States.
One Vatican source said a final statement probably would be issued at the conclusion of the meeting, but that the talks would be confidential. This is seen here almost as a family problem, which should be confronted in a family situation, he explained.Pontifical Biblical Commission Studies Bible and Morality
The Pontifical Biblical Commission began a study of the Bible and morality at its meeting on April 8-12. With a new secretary and 10 new members appointed by the pope, the commission was at the very initial stages of work on its new topic, said Klemens Stock, S.J., the commission’s secretary. Father Stock said the commission began with famous texts such as the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in its investigation of how the just or righteous Christian life is described.
Hundreds of other Bible passages will be studied, he said, and the work is expected to include biblical precepts for the proper moral behavior of individuals and communities. The work of preparing a commission document on the topic likely will take two or three years, as was the case with previous documents, he said.Cardinal Law Says Pope Encouraged Him
Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law said he raised the possibility of his resignation during an unannounced visit with Vatican officials and Pope John Paul II, but returned home encouraged to address the sex abuse scandal in his archdiocese. In a statement April 16, the cardinal said that he had just been in Rome for several days of counsel and advice, and that the pope and other officials were very conscious of the gravity of the situation.
As a result of my stay in Rome, I return home encouraged in my efforts to provide the strongest possible leadership in ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that no child is ever abused again by a priest of this archdiocese, he said. Cardinal Law said the focus of his Vatican meetings was the impact of the [Rev. Paul] Shanley and other sexual abuse cases upon public opinion in general and specifically upon the members of the archdiocese. The fact that my resignation has been proposed as necessary was part of my presentation, he said.
Cardinal Law has come under fire for having continued to reassign Father Shanley, who remained an active priest in good standing into the 1990’s, despite a series of abuse allegations against him that went back as far as 1967, and complaints that he spoke in favor of sexual relations between men and boys. But repeating what he wrote in a letter to Boston priests on April 12, Cardinal Law said he planned to continue serving the archdiocese as long as God gives me the opportunity.Cardinal’s Letter Links Sex Abuse Crisis to Christ’s Passion
Offering deepest apologies and our heartfelt sorrow to victims of clergy sexual abuse, and outlining the church’s strict policies to protect children against such abuse, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., in a new pastoral letter likened the scandal to the passion of Christ. The sin and sorrow, failure and pain of the church’s members continue to make Christ’s suffering present in the life of the church as it moves along its pilgrim path, the cardinal wrote in his letter. Like Jesus, the church undergoes, in this sense, its own passion’ as it participates in the passion of Christ; the church’s suffering continues until time will be no more.News Briefs
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