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Seeking guidance

As meetings with Pope John Paul II begin today, pressure builds on Cardinal Law.

©Associated Press
April 23, 2002


VATICAN CITY -- Even before formal talks begin today, American prelates are already at odds on how to deal with the sex abuse scandal. A main source of division appears to be the question of whether Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law should resign.

American church leaders were called here for an extraordinary meeting in an acknowledgment by the Vatican that a series of sex abuse scandals had shaken the confidence of the faithful.

In addition to divisions over Law, there could be differences among bishops _ and with the Vatican _ over whether homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood and whether any relaxation was needed in the Roman Catholic Church's requirement that its all-male corps of priests be celibate.

"I think we'll talk about whatever the cardinals want to talk about because we want to make sure that we handle this and that we are able to say to our people that this is under control, that it won't happen again and we're moving in that direction," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said Monday.

The spotlight was on Law, the Boston archbishop facing demands that he resign for his handling of cases of sex abuse by priests in his jurisdiction _ especially the cases of two known abusers who were moved from parish to parish.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, reported Monday that several U.S. cardinals will push the Vatican to ask Law to resign.

The cardinal was quoted as saying other senior prelates had asked him to take the Law case to Vatican officials close to Pope John Paul II. He said he and others would do so Monday during private meetings.

Even though no cardinal spoke publicly about a resignation, word of the newspaper report spread quickly.

McCarrick said he had not heard of an anti-Law push, and suggested that another cardinal, William Keeler of Baltimore, hadn't either. But McCarrick added: "If some felt very strongly, they would speak to him privately. I can't see a cabal.

"The trouble began on his watch and he wants to fix it. Give him a chance," McCarrick told reporters gathered near St. Peter's Square.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it was "not appropriate" to talk about any possible resignation, but that "I am not one of those bishops" said to be ganging up against Law.

Upon arriving in Rome, Law declined any comment, other than to note his remarks Sunday in Boston when he called the scandal a "wake-up call" for the church in the United States and said that it "must spark immediate and decisive changes."

Law made a secret visit to the Vatican earlier this month and issued a statement on April 16 saying he had discussed a possible resignation and was encouraged to stay on as archbishop.

Gregory said that "American Catholics are rightfully disturbed but I don't think that people have lost their faith."

He said he hoped the meetings "will lead to a greater security and future that will be safe for all our children."

The two days of formal meetings will be held behind closed doors in the Sala Bologna, a frescoed conference room in the Apostolic Palace. The Vatican is leaving public comments to the Americans, who, anxious to show they are seeking to resolve the scandal, plan to brief the media twice a day.

The Vatican did announce Monday that nearly all its top officials will be sitting down with the Americans, listing eight names, up from the original three. In addition, the pope will address the Americans today and attend as many of the sessions as his schedule allows.

The Vatican will clearly emphasize its positions, including the pope's repeated emphasis on the need to maintain celibacy.

Two months ago the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood. McCarrick said there was no consensus on this issue in the American church, leaving open the possibility for a celibate homosexual to join the priesthood.

"My own view is that if they are acting out, they are not ready for celibacy, they are not ready for the priesthood. You go case by case, by case," McCarrick said.

The prelates said they will be looking to the Vatican for guidance and support on a range of issues, foremost among them whether the church should cease reassigning any alleged sex offenders and set about creating a uniform American policy for reporting abuse claims to police.

McCarrick doubted there would be talk about ordaining women, calling that a theological issue.

All 13 U.S. cardinals were invited to the meeting, but 81-year-old Cardinal James Hickey, the retired archbishop of Washington, was too frail to make the trip. Gregory and the conference vice president will also attend.

The revelations began pouring out early this year, and the pope broke his silence on the matter in a pre-Easter letter to priests March 21. He said a "dark shadow of suspicion" had been cast over priests "by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."

Scandals have cropped up in other countries in recent years, including Austria, Ireland, France and Australia. Last month, an archbishop in John Paul's native Poland was forced to resign, accused of making sexual advances on young seminarians.

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