Among the Vatican Goals, Guidelines for Priests
April 17, 2002
By MELINDA HENNEBERGER
New York Times
ROME, April 16 - American cardinals have been summoned to
the Vatican next week not only to talk about sexual abuse
involving priests but also to agree on guidelines ``aimed
at restoring a sense of safety and tranquillity to families
and trust to clergy and the faithful,'' according to a
statement issued today.
That appeared to be an ambitious agenda for a two-day
meeting announced only on Monday, and it seemed unlikely
that such guidelines could be arrived at so quickly unless
the Vatican had them fairly well mapped out.
After months of near silence on the scandals upsetting the
Roman Catholic Church in the United States, the Vatican has
seized the initiative with a forcefulness that has stunned
church officials here. ``It caught everybody off guard, and
people were pleasantly surprised,'' one Vatican priest said
today. ``I pray they say, `Let's clean house and take
American church officials were not called here to be
disciplined, Vatican officials said, though there have been
complaints from the public that some officials, including
Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston and Cardinal Edward M.
Egan of New York, have mishandled sexual-abuse cases.
In a statement today, Cardinal Law said he had met with
Pope John Paul II here in the last few days. He also said
the pope and others with whom he had met were ``very
conscious of the gravity of the situation.''
Cardinal Law has said he wants to stay on, though this is
widely considered unlikely even here, where he was
considered the favorite among American cardinals until
``The fact that my resignation has been proposed as
necessary was part of my presentation,'' he said.
Cardinal Egan has been accused of covering up sexual-abuse
cases as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. He says he handled the
As for the scheduled meetings next week, the pope is the
only one who has the authority to call the American
cardinals here on such short notice, several Vatican
officials said today.
Whether that indicates that the pope wants to hear from the
cardinals about the scandals when they meet next Tuesday
and Wednesday, or whether he wishes to deliver the
Vatican's judgment on the issue - or both - is not clear.
The guidelines to be discussed at the meeting would apply
only to the church in the United States, which has been the
most open of any Catholic church about the problems of
sexual abuse and pedophilia among priests.
Working out the details of the guidelines and implementing
them will still be the responsibility of the American
bishops, not the Vatican.
Officials insist that the pope, who had been criticized for
failing to respond sooner to the crisis, was made aware of
the full implications of the scandals only last week,
during meeting with leaders of the United States Conference
of Bishops, including the conference president, Bishop
The American cardinals will also meet with several of the
pope's top deputies, men to whom he has delegated
significant responsibility for day-to-day operations at the
The meeting will include Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos,
who heads the Congregation for Clergy, Giovanni Battista
Re, who heads the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger's office was
recently given responsibility for reviewing all sexual
abuse accusations made against priests anywhere in the
Officials here promise a no-holds-barred exchange on what
today's statement called ``the problems which have surfaced
in the church in the United States following scandals
connected to pedophilia.''
Vatican officials say they feel they are owed an
explanation for the way sexual abuse cases have been
handled. Since January, dozens of priests in at least 17
dioceses in the United States have been removed or
suspended in cases of sexual abuse.
In the case first in the news, Father John J. Geoghan, 66,
was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for sexually
abusing a boy in Boston in 1991. More than 130 complaints
had been brought against Father Geoghan, but officials
there responded by moving him from parish to parish and
secretly paying out compensation to the victims.
The guidelines that will be talked about here are intended
to help American bishops prevent such situations in the
future. Bishop Gregory said last week that the conference
planned to devise nationwide protocols at a June meeting in
``I'm very hopeful about it,'' said the Rev. John Wauck, a
priest who teaches at the Pontificia Universita della Santa
Croce in Rome. ``There's a lot of spilled milk that's not
going to be unspilled, and the changes we make now may not
be felt for a generation. But the Holy Father does see
things historically and I'm sure he sees the potential to
set new standards,'' not only on abuse but on broader
issues of church leadership.
Father Wauck said that does not mean the pope has to have
formulated a complicated plan for the cardinals.
``The moral law is clear, and it doesn't take a rocket
scientist to recognize a crime,'' Father Wauck said.
Through canon law, he said, bishops and cardinals ``have
the tools to handle this stuff already.''
The pope's American biographer, George Weigel, who is here
in Rome, said the agenda spelled out today ``is a lot to
get done in two days, but it clearly demonstrates that the
pope wants this addressed vigorously, forthrightly and
At this point, the central question is what remedies will
be discussed at the meeting.
``I hope what's on the table is a comprehensive look at how
did this happen and how you get in place uniform national
norms and personnel policies - and quickly,'' Mr. Weigel
One Vatican priest said an important issue would be more
training on how church leaders should minister to people
harmed by abusive priests, an eventuality that is certainly
not addressed in seminaries.
One common theme has been the need for improved screening
and training in the seminaries.
Another idea circulating among church conservatives is the
need for a discussion of the reality of homosexuality in
the priesthood, since most of the abuse cases involve teenage boys.
Several Vatican priests said that whatever else happened at
the meeting they hoped the cardinals would not use the
occasion to speak about their own burdens and hardships in
coping with the scandals.