For an institution in which attention to policy matters is sometimes measured in centuries, the summons to Rome by Pope John Paul II for American cardinals to discuss the burgeoning sexual-abuse scandal is an ecclesiastical lightning bolt.
The crucial question, of course, is whether the Pope expects to use the closed-door conference next week with his U.S. archbishops to declare new church policy or has called the meeting simply to give the impression that something is being done.
For the sake of the Roman Catholic Church, and the good of its 62 million anxious American members, let us pray that the Pope intends this meeting to accomplish more than merely damage control.
Seldom, if ever, has the Catholic church in this country confronted a more poisonous controversy than reports, now numbering some 500, that it has systematically shielded priests from prosecution for sexual abuse and pedophilia involving parishioners, mostly boys and young men.
If the Pope publicly admits that such activity is a felony that ruins one or more lives rather than a sin to be quietly absolved, he will have taken a meaningful step toward restoring confidence among the faithful that evil will not be ignored when it wears the clerical collar.
The Vatican appears to recognize that widespread dissatisfaction with the church's arms-length handling of the four-month-old scandal could grow. The call for the cardinals came within 48 hours of a meeting in Rome last weekend of the Pope and his top officials with members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Before that, we were told that John Paul II was “deeply concerned” but was willing to allow the American church to weather the crisis on its own.
What is needed is leadership that transcends the church's archaic rules. Lack of leadership, which only the Pope can effectively provide, is what has gotten the church into its current trouble.
Because American bishops - more than 250 of them - are essentially answerable directly to the Pope, only he can prescribe a uniform procedure for the handling of sexual-abuse complaints. As it is, complaints have been handled in a wide variety of ways. Some bishops have dismissed the priests involved and cooperated with authorities in criminal prosecution. But many more have quietly paid off the complainants or, worse, allowed the abuse to continue by transferring accused clerics from church to church.
That is what happened in Boston, and now the scandal has caught up with the rest of the American church and threatens to engulf it.
Among the cardinals summoned to Rome are Bernard Law, of Boston, and John Egan, of New York, both the subject of malfeasance investigations. Some Catholics are calling for these two to excuse themselves from the meeting, and it's a valid concern. If they were so much a part of the problem, can they be part of an effective solution?
Another question is why the Pope chose to limit the conference to just the American cardinals. Similar sexual abuse by priests has been reported in Ireland, Australia, England, Canada, Germany, and Poland.
For much of its two millennia, the church has chosen to keep the lid on incipient scandals, especially of a sexual nature. It ought to be apparent to those in power in Rome that such willful nonfeasance won't work any longer.