A Summons From the Pope

April 21, 2002

New York Times

Not a moment too soon, the Vatican has now moved aggressively to confront the widening sex abuse scandal
that has caused the removal of dozens of priests in at
least 17 dioceses across America since January, exposed the
Catholic Church to crippling lawsuits and shaken the
confidence of millions of parishioners. On Tuesday,
American cardinals, responding to a direct order from Pope
John Paul II, will convene at the Vatican to address the
scandal. It is not clear whether the pope was driven to
call the meeting mainly by charges that he had been
indifferent to the crisis or by a dawning awareness of its
severity. Whatever the reason, he is to be commended for
seizing the initiative. Yesterday, speaking to a group of
Nigerian bishops, the pope ordered that the church
"diligently investigate accusations" of sexual misconduct.

It is important, however, that this week's meeting produce
real results, not just comforting words. According to news
accounts, the Vatican may be willing to entertain debate on
complex and controversial doctrinal issues like celibacy,
the screening of gay candidates for the priesthood and the
role of women in the church. Obviously, centuries of
doctrine are not going to be rewritten in a two-day
meeting, even assuming an inclination among the
participants to make major changes. But at the very least
they should aim for a credible strategy for dealing with
the problem: a system that has allowed senior figures in
the church to tolerate and hide - and thus has encouraged -
the molestation of children by sexually predatory priests.

What all the lay world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike,
is waiting for is a clear and universal set of guidelines
that would help the church - particularly seminaries and
local parishes - detect potential abusers before

Most critically, the guidelines must give specific and
uncompromising instructions on how to deal promptly and
effectively with priests suspected of sexual abuse. One
American participant, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of
Washington, said in an interview with The Washington Post
this week that the meeting should strive for a national
policy requiring American dioceses to notify civil
authorities of any credible allegations of sexual abuse by

If the Vatican could agree on fundamentals, he suggested,
the details could be negotiated at the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops' semiannual meeting,
scheduled for Dallas in June.

There is only so much the pope can do in terms of
micromanaging diocesan behavior. But the meeting reflects a
healthy awareness on his part, and that may help shed
sunlight on a huge problem that has been allowed to fester
too long in the shadows. It also reflects an awareness that
this may be a systemic problem that goes beyond the
failures of individual authorities.