The unprecedented meeting of the U.S. cardinals at the Vatican in April revealed significant disagreement on how to respond to the sex-abuse crisis in the United States. Were the differences among the American cardinals or between the Americans and curial officials? Or did the disagreements cut across curial-episcopal lines? Hard to know. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick did hint at the divergences in views when he said of missing words about the laity in the meeting’s closing statement: "Words are in, words are out."

Well, more words are out from Rome-out in public. They are words from mid-level bureaucrats and canonists in the Vatican. Among the propositions: bishops should not turn over the names of accused priests to civil authorities; bishops are not liable for the criminal acts of priests (unless they connive in them); bishops should not make civil settlements with victims; an accused priest cannot be required to have psychological tests or seek therapy; a priest’s past record of abuse should not be revealed in a new assignment. In other words, at least some in Rome propose the exact opposite of what the bishops in the United States are planning to promulgate nationally in June, and what many of them already practice in their own dioceses.

The "do-nothing" view is summed up in an article in the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica (May 20) by Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., a canonist and consulter to the Vatican. Father Ghirlanda, who is also dean of the canon law faculty at Gregorian University, claims that these views are his own and that the article was written before the current outbreak in the abuse scandal. His purpose may well be to defend canon law. In any case, signed articles in the Jesuit weekly have no official standing. But similar arguments, including a speech by a Vatican official, Archbishop Julian Herranz, who attended the cardinals’ April meeting, suggest that there may be a campaign on to make this particular interpretation of canon law determinative for how the issue is dealt with in the United States. That would be a grave mistake.

The argument’s putative motive-protecting the rights of priests-is hardly credible at this point in the scandal, indeed, it is both sad and laughable. Using the language of "rights" within the church is often misleading, but since the canonists have chosen to address the question in this way, let us recall some recent history. The curia, during this pontificate, has trampled on the rights of bishops, bishops’ conferences, theologians, priests, and religious to say nothing of the rights of lay people (for one thing, the right of the Christian faithful to a weekly Eucharistic celebration). Did we leave anyone out?

In most other circumstances, Rome, of course, has been the first to argue that "rights" language is inappropriate in speaking of relations within the Christian community. Indeed, false accusations against a priest are always a possibility, as the Vatican says it fears, but in the matter of serial predators this hardly seems a real menace. Furthermore, one hears from bishops themselves that Rome has consistently thwarted their efforts to remove admitted, even convicted, abusive priests from ministry. And now the Vatican wants bishops to refrain from insisting that such priests undergo testing and treatment? Who is in denial here?

These strictures (be they official, quasi-official, or nonofficial) are but one piece of a many-sided argument. Nonetheless, they could sidetrack the efforts of the U.S. bishops to set national standards for handling priests who sexually abuse minors. Even as matters now stand, national rules in themselves will not be an easy matter for the bishops to agree on (see our May 17 editorial, "When in Dallas"). Apart from the timidity of the bishops, and the divisions among them, the complex issues involved in setting policies that will bring compassion to the victims and justice to the priests are not easily ordered into clear and comprehensive policies. And what of the credible explanation owed to Americans and American Catholics alike? Vatican pettifogging and second-guessing cannot help.

In Dallas and after, the bishops must speak their own minds and respond to the needs of their own local churches. In a hierarchical church, the bishops must look down the ranks as well as up the ladder. Not the Vatican but the ranks of the faithful-priests and laity-deserve to be heard and spoken too.

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