After the Scandal, a Grim Thought: Can It Be Fixed?

April 21, 2002

By MELINDA HENNEBERGER

New York Times

ROME : A FRIEND of Pope John Paul II recently described him as an
old man with the innocence of a child - someone who
literally found it difficult to believe the accusations of
pedophilia and sex abuse against his fellow priests.

(He was hardly the only one, of course, who might have had
a hard time comprehending the ultimate outrage - of how a
Boston priest who actually gave speeches at the North
American Man-Boy Love Association and ended up running a
gay, clothing-optional inn in Palm Springs, Calif., could
have been receiving supportive notes from his superiors.)

But now that John Paul has fully digested the bad news -
and dramatically summoned all American cardinals to Rome
next week as a result - many Roman Catholics seem similarly
na´ve about how hard it will be to solve the problem.

The unthinkable, it's true, already happened last week:
after months of inaction, John Paul suddenly ordered his
entire American team to get on a plane and get over here in
a matter of days. Officials in the Vatican, where
discretion is a way of life, have promised no-holds-barred
discussions on a stomach-turning subject. And the promised
daily news briefings at next week's meetings? In Roman
terms, this is only slightly less shocking than if C-Span
had been invited into the closed-door sessions.

But across the spectrum of Catholic thought, the faithful
now have such high hopes for the meetings here Tuesday and
Wednesday that even the American bishops who prompted the
Vatican turnaround are warning that they cannot possibly
live up to expectations.

Conservatives and liberals have nonetheless dusted off
their wish lists.

Conservatives believe the sexual abuse shows that moral
standards have become lax, and that because most of the
cases involve teenage boys, screening out homosexual
candidates for the priesthood is the answer.

Liberals are equally eager to tag priestly celibacy as the
root of the problem, and the ordination of women and
married men as the solution.

It was in part Rome's fear that the scandal was a stand-in
for other issues - a pretext for those who wanted to
exaggerate the problem in order to push just such an agenda
- that made some Vatican officials so slow to believe the
depth of the problem in the first place.

And even now that the hierarchy seems determined to address
the issue of sexual abuse, the church is simply not set up
to move quickly - or perhaps at all - on the kind of
fundamental change that many American Catholics are
pressing for.

ROME can't be open to changing the faith," Cardinal J.
Francis Stafford, an American cardinal who heads the
Vatican's Pontifical Council for Laity, said in an
interview last week. "That's the gift of God, and Rome has
no power to make any changes there," he said, referring
specifically to the issues of women's ordination and
married clergy. "The power of the pope or bishops is very
restricted," he said. "One has to be humble enough to admit
that."

Nor is the church in any apparent hurry to carry out the
reforms conservatives would like. A Vatican study last year
that concluded that homosexual candidates should not be
accepted to seminaries has never been released because
there is too much internal opposition.

All this is not to say that the hierarchy is not prepared
to make some important changes, however; at this point,
nobody thinks a couple of weekend workshops are going to
get the job done.

The church seems almost sure, for example, to re-examine
the way bishops govern and discipline their priests, and
the way priests are trained and expected to live. (There
should be no room for candidates who see the priesthood as
a cushy, rent-free life free of the pressures of working
for a living, even if that means an even smaller number of
clergy, some priests here are saying.)

There could well be changes in canon law, as well, to make
it easier to get rid of predatory priests. Another real
possibility being talked about is a
one-strike-and-you're-out policy for priests found to have
sexually abused minors. Even secrecy itself seems to be on
the table, since many feel too much emphasis on
confidentiality contributed to the scandals.

ALREADY, there seems to be a new understanding that lawyers
have not done the American church any favors in defending
the financial interests of a diocese by using hard-nosed
tactics against victims of priestly abuse. And many are
pressing for harsher penalties from church courts in
addition to punishments meted out by civil authorities. The
church's existing code of canon law says that any priest
who has a sexual relationship with someone under the age of
18 "must be punished with just punishments, not excluding
expulsion from the clerical state."

There has also been a noticeable change in attitude here
about who the real victims are; Vatican officials have said
that the sessions will most certainly not be encounter
groups for cardinals who want to talk about how hard these
last months have been on them. Victims will be front and
center, the officials say, and will get the "mea culpa"
that they are owed.

It may also be worth remembering how far the Vatican has
come in the exactly one month since Cardinal Dario
Castrillon Hoyos, who will be chairman of this week's
meetings, told reporters that while sex scandals were not
insignificant, "the pope is worried over peace in the
world."

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