Pope John Paul II has summoned the eight cardinals of the American Roman Catholic Church to an extraordinary meeting in Rome next week to address the widening scandal involving the sexual abuse of children by priests.
The prelates, who include Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, are scheduled to meet with the 81-year-old pope and Vatican officials April 23 or 24.
It will be a quick turnaround for Keeler, who was in Rome last week on business unrelated to the abuse scandal. He received his invitation in a fax over the weekend. He declined through a spokesman to comment before the meeting.
Vatican observers said the invitation from the Holy See was unprecedented. Cardinals, who are second only to the pope, are usually summoned as a group to Rome to install other cardinals, to consult with the pope or pick a pope.
"It's very extraordinary," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly magazine, and an expert on Catholic hierarchy. "I don't know of any time when the American cardinals have been called to Rome on such short notice. In fact, I don't know of any time the American cardinals have been called to Rome at all."
The only similar convocation Reese could recall came in 1989, when all of the American archbishops, the leaders of the country's largest dioceses, were summoned to Rome to discuss tensions over issues such as the remarriage of divorced Catholics and the church's ban on artificial birth control.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, said the hastily called meeting shows the Vatican, which had been criticized for its lack of response to the American crisis, is realizing the depth of the problem.
"It indicates the degree of seriousness of the current scandals and the mismanagement and misgovernance and moral corruption that obviously and sadly is deeply entrenched in the church in America," Neuhaus said. "And the pope knows this."
This latest sexual abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church began with revelations that a former Boston priest had been accused of molesting more than 130 boys over a decades-long career. Court documents showed that Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and his predecessor were aware of the allegations and allowed the priest to be transferred from parish to parish, where he continued to abuse youths. This and subsequent cases surfacing in Boston have prompted calls for Law's resignation, which he has spurned.
The scandal has mushroomed as diocese after diocese has revealed or acknowledged cases of abuse involving dozens of clerics and hundreds of victims that had been ignored or quietly settled. The church has paid out hundreds of millions for settlements, legal fees and therapy for victims.
In addition to Law and Keeler, the other cardinals expected to attend the meeting are: Edward Egan of New York, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Theodore McCarrick of Washington, Francis George of Chicago, Adam Maida of Detroit and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop William S. Skylstad, its vice president, will also be present at the meeting, the bishops' conference said in a statement. Gregory and Skylstad were in Rome last week for their regular semiannual visit to the Vatican but in an unusual move met with the pope to discuss the sexual abuse crisis.
After the meetings with the pope and other Vatican officials, Gregory said during a news conference that Vatican officials told them that the pope was leaving it up to the American bishops to resolve the crisis.
"How come only two days after [Gregory] announced the pope had full confidence in the American bishops to handle [the crisis] on their own, he's calling together all the American cardinals to have a meeting about it?" asked the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame University theologian. "Obviously, they've reconsidered. They think the crisis is a little bit bigger than they've been willing to concede before."
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights, who is active in defending Catholicism against public slight, reflected the anger felt by many church members, saying next week's gathering must produce more than platitudes. "What we don't need is one more bureaucratic response," Donohue said. "We need some straight talk and some straight answers. This is a golden opportunity to deal forthrightly on this issue."