U.S. cardinals at Vatican for meeting on sex abuse

Future for Law, of Boston, appears likely to come up in talks with papal aides


ROME - As U.S. cardinals arrived here for meetings at the Vatican on clerical sex abuse, church officials continued to suggest that the future of Cardinal Bernard F. Law would be up for discussion.

The meetings today and tomorrow will focus primarily on how to protect children from predatory priests, the officials said. The U.S. bishops are looking for guidance and Vatican support as they prepare to draft national protocols to prevent abuse, to be presented at their national June meeting in Dallas.

But Law of Boston remains at the center of the national controversy that began in his archdiocese, and a number of Vatican officials have said privately in recent weeks that they do not see how the U.S. church can begin to heal until he steps down.

Law has repeatedly insisted he would not resign, most recently late last week after returning to Boston from a secret meeting with Pope John Paul II.

Vatican officials announced an expanded list of powerful church leaders who will meet with the pope and U.S. cardinals.

Those will include the prelates who oversee seminaries and schools, religious orders, the interpretation of Roman Catholic Church law and how the sacraments are administered. They will join Vatican-based cardinals who hold sway over doctrine, bishops and priests. The Vatican also said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state and next to the pope in power, would take part.

Their involvement suggests that the talks will cover a broad and detailed agenda. "It implies that many of the members of the Holy Father's curia are interested and willing to be of assistance," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "My optimistic side tells me that the more members of Holy Father's curia that are engaged in hearing and in discussion, the better it is for the church."

Already yesterday, signs emerged of competing agendas, including whether celibacy should be part of the discussion.

"Whether ... celibacy will come in to be supported or to be discussed, I just don't know," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington told reporters. "If it does, it will always be in that context of what basically we're trying to reach - we're over here because the Holy Father said, `I'm concerned about what's happening to the children.'"

The cardinal said he would speak of the celibacy requirement during the meeting only to defend it and point out that it was a "straw man" in the discussion of the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

He also said no consensus existed among U.S. bishops on whether homosexuals should be allowed in the priesthood.

There also appears to be divisions over the fate of Law, who has been harshly criticized for allowing priests with known histories of sexual abuse to be transferred from parish to parish.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, first reported yesterday that several U.S. cardinals were planning to ask the Vatican to force Law's resignation.

McCarrick, referring to those apparently seeking Law's ouster, said yesterday, "I'm not part of that. I'm part of the group that says, "If he says he's going to fix it, let him fix it.'"

Gregory was also asked about the report that some cardinals and bishops wanted Law out, and said, "You'd have to speak to them. I'm not a member of that group. I don't know all of the members who may be in that group."

Asked whether that response should be taken as a confirmation that some U.S. church leaders do feel it is time for Law to go, Gregory said, "I feel it would not be appropriate for me to say. If other people have come to me in confidence, I'm unwilling to reveal that source. I'm not one of the bishops who would be included in that group."

Law, who was nearly knocked down by a crowd of reporters and photographers when he arrived at the airport yesterday, said nothing beyond repeating what he had said Sunday in Boston, when he called the scandals a "wake-up call" for the U.S. church, that "must spark immediate and decisive changes."

The one cardinal who has been publicly critical of Law is Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. When asked to comment on Law's future recently, he answered that he would find it difficult to walk down an aisle in church if he had been guilty of gross negligence.

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