Cardinals' response raises doubts

April 26, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It's hard to be a Catholic sometimes, and I don't mean hauling myself out of bed at 6:30 on a Sunday morning to catch the early Mass so I can have the rest of the day free.

What's hard is trying to understand the mindset that prevents the church hierarchy from coming up with immediate, common-sense solutions to something like the current scandal of child sexual abuse by priests that sent the American cardinals scurrying off to Rome.

It's commendable that Pope John Paul II summoned the cardinals to address this most serious matter. And it's reassuring, too, that he has recognized that "because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter."

He seemed to be categorical in observing that "people need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." But the response of the American cardinals, while direct and responsive in some ways, was tentative and evasive in others.

In their statement after two days of sessions with the pope, they said they will recommend to the U.S. Conference of Bishops meeting in June in Dallas "a special process for the dismissal from the clerical state of a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

Why such caveats? Why does a priest have to become "notorious" for such misconduct before he is removed, and why does it have to be "serial" first? Parents of young children will have trouble understanding such distinctions.

The cardinals also said they will propose "a special process for cases which are not notorious but where the diocesan bishop considers the priest a threat for the protection of children."

Does that suggest that a priest whose misconduct is not well known may still be farmed out to another parish or put on some kind of probation?

The Rev. Robert Drinan, the former Massachusetts congressman who is now a law professor at Georgetown, says he expects a "radical transformation" in the way the problem is handled, including closer scrutiny in seminaries of prospective priests.

Apparently hindering a "zero tolerance" policy is a concern among the hierarchy that the church's preachings on contrition and redemption would be swept aside.

The pope himself said, "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change."

But Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, where zero tolerance is the rule, has said that an abusing priest, like a malpracticing doctor, can be forgiven but should not be allowed to continue his malpractice.

"He's a restored human being," Cardinal Mahony said, "but he's not practicing medicine anymore."

With a priest abusing a child, he said, "once that threshold has been crossed, we simply can't take a chance."

The problem, however, is not just with offending priests. The pope said a mouthful when he observed that people "are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter." What about church superiors who shuttled the abusers off to another parish? What action, if any, is to be taken against them?

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, under heavy pressure in his city to resign for permitting such shuttling in the past, kept a notably low profile at the Vatican during the sessions after apologizing to his fellow cardinals for his role in the whole mess. But they all said Cardinal Law's future was in the pope's hands. A priest can't be fired, but he can be persuaded to resign or be reassigned where he doesn't deal with children.

At least the matter is now out in the open. At a minimum, some disciplinary action against the Boston prelate would seem to be in order, to demonstrate that the problem doesn't end at the local parish door.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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