Results leave some disappointed
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/25/2002
They expressed their concern for children. They
promised to crack down on abusive priests. They
smiled for Connie Chung and Matt Lauer.
And in the end, the Roman Catholic Church's top
American leaders wrapped up their two-day
meeting at the Vatican having done exactly what
they said they would do: They began discussions
about a national policy on child protection to be
finalized in June.
They did not, despite press reports to the contrary,
formally discuss the future of Cardinal Bernard F.
Law or other bishops whose leadership has been
They did not, despite the predictions of some
cardinals, have a serious debate about priestly
They could not even agree on details of a zero-
tolerance policy, under which any priest who
sexually abused a child would be automatically
Instead, the 12 US cardinals who met Tuesday
and yesterday at the Vatican laid out a series of
extremely traditional Catholic principles they expect
the bishops of the United States to follow: Priests
and bishops should be holier. Pastors should
reprimand people who spread dissent.
Seminaries should carefully screen applicants,
and should insist on strict adherence to Catholic
And they offered a handful of specific proposals:
Expedite the process for defrocking abusive
priests. Schedule a national day of prayer and
The cardinals' focus on the narrow issue of what to
do to about priests who abuse children, rather than
what to do about bishops who protected those
priests or about a system that allowed abusers to
thrive, appalled many American observers.
''It was a bust,'' said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a
priest whose early work on clergy sexual abuse in
the 1980s was largely ignored by the bishops. ''I
don't think they're capable of talking about the real
issue, which is why did we cover this up?''
The Rev. James F. Keenan, a theologian at
Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge,
''We've been in an archdiocese where Bishops
Banks and McCormack and Hughes and Daily
were all involved in all this decision-making that
caused harm to lots of people and yet nowhere do
you see the bishops saying, `We need to examine
how we proceeded,''' Keenan said.
Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for victims of clergy
sexual abuse, was furious.
''The real point, which was obviously completely
lost, is that if you have a culture that is focused on
returning deviant priests to the ministry, and those
decisions are made by people at the highest level,
and they are placing no emphasis on the
protection of children, you have a real problem,''
MacLeish said. ''They should have been talking
about leadership and secrecy and systemic
reasons why the Roman Catholic Church has this
The cardinals did offer one acknowledgment of the
role of bishops in the scandal, saying in a letter to
priests that ''we regret that episcopal oversight has
not been able to preserve the church from this
And they did refer to priestly celibacy, but only to
reaffirm its value, declaring in their communique
that ''together with the fact that a link between
celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically
maintained, the meeting reaffirmed the value of
priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the church.''
But several theologians said the meeting's
outcome should not have surprised anyone, given
its relative brevity, the fact that it was not a full
meeting of the nation's bishops, and that many
church leaders have shown little interest in
discussing broad issues of reform or
''It's clear that we're still in the middle of a process -
we're not at the end point - so there are still
discussions going on and still disagreements
about some details,'' said the Rev. Thomas J.
Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit
weekly. ''This was a two-day meeting, so they didn't
have enough time to come to complete
consensus, and the cardinals are not a decision-
making body - that's the role of the bishops'
Numerous observers said the best thing about the
gathering was that it happened at all - it was the
first evidence that the Vatican, and the pope, take
seriously the issue that is roiling Catholicism in
the United States. But that will not be nearly
enough for many.
''A lot of people are going to think the whole thing
was just p.r.,'' said Stephen Pope, chairman of the
theology department at Boston College. ''They
didn't recognize the international dimension of the
problem, or the way an institutional ethos can
create a climate in which moving priests around is
acceptable, or the extent to which individual
bishops made choices which were awful.''
The cardinals made several statements that
theologians said were ambiguous but potentially
They called on church pastors ''publicly to
reprimand individuals who spread dissent and
groups which advance ambiguous approaches to
pastoral care.'' That statement might be interpreted
narrowly to refer to the need to reprimand people
such as the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, a former Boston
priest who had publicly supported sex between
men and boys, but it might be interpreted more
broadly, to apply to anyone supporting gay rights or
any view that is out of step with church teaching.
''That means that anybody who indicates sexual
activity by priests is permissible, or who allows for
any loose interpretation of moral codes, should be
reined in,'' said Chester Gillis, chairman of the
Georgetown University theology department.
The cardinals also called for bishops to visit
seminaries, ''giving special attention to their
admission requirements and the need for them to
teach Catholic moral doctrine in its integrity.''
Theologians said that statement might be code for
an effort to restrict the entrance of gay men into
seminaries, a subject now under discussion by