As we go to press, thirteen U.S. cardinals are meeting with the pope and his advisers in an effort to formulate a response and a policy that can restore the church’s credibility in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. Will this extraordinary meeting succeed at its appointed task? After initially seeming to ignore the crisis, the pope and the Roman bureaucracy made a sudden turnabout, apparently after being convinced of the magnitude of the problem by visiting American bishops and Cardinal Bernard Law. It is good that Rome has finally recognized the gravity of the situation. But if the pope continues to rely on Law as well as a few other prominent conservative American bishops and theologians, it is unlikely that he or the Vatican will come to understand the depth and scale of the mistrust felt by a significant portion of the laity toward much of the church’s hierarchy. Certainly the pope and the church’s cardinals and bishops must correct the mistakes of the past. But the high drama of summoning the cardinals to Rome should not detract attention from the fact that, with few exceptions, these very men-and unfortunately John Paul II must be included here-are the ones responsible for much of the damage in the first place. Preliminary reports on the meeting’s agenda give some reason for optimism. The Vatican and the American bishops now recognize the importance of putting in place a coordinated nationwide policy for dealing with accusations of sex abuse against priests. It appears that the Vatican will give the go-ahead for such a policy to be approved by the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting this June. But it is also necessary that the bishops document and present to the public the facts about how the church has handled such accusations over the last forty years. Only when such information is made available will all those concerned be able to judge the true dimensions of the problem. And only when the laity is convinced that all the facts are known can trust begin to be restored. It is also reported that the cardinals and the pope will discuss what have seemed for some time to be forbidden topics: the problems with celibacy; the possibility of a married clergy; the role of women in the church; and the status of homosexual priests. Conservative cardinal and former archbishop of Denver J. Francis Stafford acknowledged that, "We’re dealing with an American phenomenon that requires an American response." One hopes Stafford was suggesting that the call for openness and accountability within the American church is theologically and ecclesiologically legitimate, even prophetic. If, on the other hand, he thinks that sex abuse is uniquely an American problem, he needs to examine the behavior of Catholic priests in Latin American, Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles seems to have a firmer grasp of the problem. He is urging the pope and cardinals to discuss questions about the priesthood and ecclesiology generally, including whether to allow priests to marry. Mahony intends to push for a greater role for the laity and more open decision-making processes in the church. Even without formal approval from Rome, he and other bishops should begin implementing some administrative and financial reforms. These changes should include greater financial transparency and accountability. It seems likely that some Catholics are reducing or even withholding contributions to the church until they are convinced the hierarchy has changed its ways. The laity’s power of the purse combined with the potentially catastrophic financial liability the church is facing in sex-abuse cases here has certainly caught Rome’s attention. Less helpfully, some conservatives seem eager to write off the sex-abuse scandal as essentially a problem of homosexual priests. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, for example, has raised the possibility that homosexuals should not be ordained at all. Some homosexual priests are now afraid of a witch-hunt, and of being made scapegoats for the sex-abuse problem. Conservatives are also attributing the scandal to a collapse of priestly discipline allegedly brought on by misguided liberal reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. They propose a return to stricter spiritual practices and hierarchical control. Yet it is not clear what role the so-called post-Vatican II disarray has played in creating this crisis, nor is it obvious how more traditional priestly formation practices would solve the problem. As these competing interpretations of the sex-abuse crisis indicate, it is likely that the dreary conservative/liberal stalemate within the church will only intensify over this issue. Where the pope and Vatican stand is no secret, and the pope’s opening remarks to the U.S. cardinals give little encouragement to those hoping the Vatican would acknowledge the need for dramatic reform. That is why now, more than ever, the church needs a new voice raised, one respectful of Rome but not easily intimidated-a voice capable of loosening what has become the dead hand of authority while not capitulating to a demand for change that would simply dispense with tradition. Perhaps Cardinal Mahony’s brave words signal the emergence of such a figure. Especially heartening was Mahony’s recognition of the need for "a church that’s more humble." Rarely has the church seemed more in need of humility than now, as bishops prepare to be dragged into courts across the land to testify about their alleged roles in the cover-up of crimes. But Mahony will not be able to move the church toward more openness by himself; he will need other bishops at his side, and those bishops will need priests and laypeople behind-or even in front of-them. Will other voices join Mahony’s when the bishops meet in June? The laity will be listening. And praying. April 23, 2002

Published in the 2002-05-03 issue: 
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