U.S. Church Faces News Media on the Abuse Scandal

April 21, 2002

By DANIEL J. WAKIN

New York Times

ROME, April 20 - Vatican officials are leaving it to the
American church to put a public face on next week's meeting
of United States cardinals. The United States bishops'
conference is setting up public relations shop, while the
Vatican is releasing little information.

The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has declined
to comment since the meeting was announced in a brief
statement issued in Italian on Tuesday. It said the
cardinals would meet with top Vatican officials on Tuesday
and Wednesday to examine problems in the American church
created by the sexual abuse scandal and to discuss ways to
protect families and restore trust.

The Vatican does not plan to hold a news conference, but on
Tuesday it will issue the text of an address that Pope John
Paul II will give to the cardinals, Vatican officials said,
and a final statement will be released after the two-day
meeting ends. A Vatican prelate with knowledge of the
meeting's preparations said there were no immediate plans
for a papal letter on pedophilia.

Communications officials of the United States bishops'
conference arrived on Friday and opened an office at the
North American College seminary on the Janiculum hill above
the Vatican. They said that several briefings were planned
for each day of the meetings and that Cardinal Theodore E.
McCarrick of Washington would answer reporters' questions.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who works in the Vatican,
Cardinal McCarrick, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago
and Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney of Los Angeles have led the
way with interviews in an apparent strategy to show
openness.

Several cardinals, all of whom were appointed by Pope John
Paul II, said issues like celibacy and the role of women in
the church would be on the table. But today, in a speech to
Nigerian bishops, the pope said that the value of celibacy
in the priesthood "must be carefully safeguarded," and
called for diligent inquiries into accusations of sexual
misconduct.

At next week's meeting, the issue of addressing the news
media will be vital to the American bishops because a major
aim of the gathering is restoring the trust of the American
faithful, a trust that has been eroded by the sexual abuse
scandal and by bishops' efforts to keep it out of the
limelight. In recent months, American bishops have been
under pressure from both the public and prosecutors to
release information about the numbers and nature of
accusations against priests.

"They want to be able to assure the whole country that this
is being resolved," said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, a
spokesman for the United States bishops' conference.

The differing public relations approaches reflect basic
differences in how the American church and the Vatican
operate. As American television crews and reporters pour
into Rome for the meeting, the conditions are arising for a
culture clash, a sort of News-at-11 mentality meets
clerical rectitude.

While American reporters can often pick up the phone and
get answers quickly or can pepper public officials with
questions at news conferences, the Vatican press corps is
not used to that kind of access and accountability. It is a
world where midlevel Vatican bureaucrats are ill at ease
about even speaking with a journalist.

One American clergyman who teaches at a Vatican university
said he has received four calls from American reporters
seeking interviews. He turned them all down.

One figure who has not turned down interview requests is
Msgr. Kevin McCoy, the rector of the North American
College, who has been giving up to four a day. He said he
had no inside knowledge of the meeting and was focusing on
preparing seminarians for the priesthood. But "people need
a quote," he said.

While the ways of the Vatican may seem opaque to Americans,
part of that character is inherently European, Monsignor
McCoy said.

"It's not, `Things can't be done,' but it's more, `Let's
make sure about some of the steps we take and measure our
responses,' " he said. And when the pope speaks, he said,
"the words stand."

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