April 16, 2002
ROME -- Eight of the highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergy in the United States will meet with Pope John Paul II next week to discuss the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the U.S. church.
The meeting called by John Paul follows some criticisms that the Vatican has shown a lack of leadership during a scandal affecting churches across the country and involving dozens of priests of all ranks -- including some of the cardinals who will meet with the pontiff at the Vatican.
A senior Vatican official said Monday that the cardinals would meet with some Vatican officials as well as the pope. A spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese said the meeting was scheduled for April 23-24.
The Vatican official said only the eight American cardinals in charge of an archdiocese will be involved in next week's talks. They are Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.
The offices of Keeler, Maida, Mahony and Egan confirmed their planned attendance.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said the conference's top two officials -- Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president, and Bishop William Skylstad, the vice president -- also will attend the Vatican meeting.
The Roman Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere is under fire for its handling of a series of allegations of sex abuse by priests.
The church is accused of covering up misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job. It has already paid millions of dollars in damages and faces numerous lawsuits from victims.
Law has faced growing criticism since acknowledging he transferred a priest to another parish despite knowing of sexual misconduct allegations against the man. That defrocked priest later was sentenced to prison.
Law said last week he would not resign as leader of the country's fourth-largest diocese.
Egan, who leads the third-largest archdiocese, has been accused of helping to hide priest sexual-abuse cases when he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. He maintains he handled the cases appropriately.
In Mahony's archdiocese, the nation's largest, published reports said there have been about eight recent cases of priests ousted for sexual misconduct. The archdiocese has paid alleged victims millions of dollars.
Mahony himself recently was accused of molesting a woman 32 years ago, but police dismissed that claim last week.
"A healthy dialogue with officials in the Vatican is essential to repairing the past damage and to create a more open and honest way of dealing with any kind of misconduct within the Catholic Church for the future," Mahony said Monday.
He also said he plans to announce some new initiatives for dealing with the problem before leaving for the Vatican.
Dioceses in New York, Boston, Cincinnati, New Hampshire and Maine, among others, have given law enforcement authorities records of cases involving priests accused of molesting youngsters.
Maida, who leads the Detroit archdiocese's 1.4 million Roman Catholics, said, "Bringing together this level of Church leadership in Rome on this most serious issue is the right move at the right time."
Cardinals are second in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy only to the pope. They usually are summoned to Rome only when new cardinals are named or to choose a new pope.
A special meeting of cardinals from just one country is extraordinary. Only one similar meeting has been held before, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine "America."
In 1989, the pope summoned all the American archbishops to discuss tensions between U.S. Catholics and the Vatican over issues such as remarriage for divorced Catholics and disregard for the church ban on artificial birth control.
The summons comes just days after the top U.S. bishops were in Rome for their semiannual talks with the 81-year-old pontiff. The sex abuse scandals dominated the discussions.
Gregory said the pope wants to help.
"He extended his hand in support to the bishops of the United States," Gregory said Saturday. "The Holy See has demonstrated an extraordinary openness in understanding the particular situation that we face in the United States."
Two weeks ago, Gregory told The Associated Press there was a possibility the U.S. bishops would ask the Vatican to approve a binding sex abuse policy for American clergy. He said details would be released at the bishops meeting in June.