Catholic Church in Crisis
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s meetings in Rome, we turn to John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly.
Welcome, John. Set the scene for us for this highly unusual meeting. How did it unfold?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, there were actually three sessions today, all of which took place in the Apostolic Palace, which is the building just over my left shoulder, though it may be a little out of camera range. It’s the building in which the Pope has his private apartment. It’s also where he receives dignitaries.
The first session was with the Pope and the Americans who are in town, the Cardinals and the two officers from the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. There, the Cardinals and Bishops got in a semicircle around the Pope, and he read an opening discourse to them. Then the Americans went to the Sala Bologna, which is a very ornate room used for audiences and meetings inside the apostolic palace where they got around tables with the leaders, the heads of most of the departments of the Vatican and rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
MARGARET WARNER: And we ran… the Vatican, of course, did release the full text of what the Pope had to say, and we’ve just run a short clip of one statement he made where he said, “Sexual abuse of the young is a crime as well as a sin.” How did the Cardinals you’ve spoken with interpret that?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, it was seen by several American Cardinals as a very significant statement, as a step forward in the Church’s understanding of sexual abuse of children by priests, because so often in the past this has been treated as a spiritual problem, as a sort of moral weakness, a sin, by priests, which can be addressed through spiritual remedies; that is, counseling and prayer and so forth, which would allow a priest to sort of pick up the pieces and resume his ministry.
And I think what is happening at the moment is that there is a growing recognition that that sort of abuse also needs to be treated as a criminal issue for which the proper forum is the criminal justice system. And so several American Cardinals saw the Pope’s use of that word as a recognition of that shift in thinking.
MARGARET WARNER: And then what guidance did they feel they were getting from him on the question of what Bishops should do with priests other than the law enforcement angle, but in terms of their role within the Church and their ongoing role if they have been found guilty of abuse?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, the Pope’s remarks on this point struck several of the Cardinals as somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, he did, of course, refer to this as a crime. On the other hand, he also said that we must not lose sight of the idea of Christian conversion — that is, through repentance and conversion of heart, that priests can continue functioning in some way.
And during a press briefing that took place after the morning session, Cardinal Frances George of Chicago, one of the participants in the discussions, told us that there is real division on this point, both inside the Vatican and also between the Vatican and the American Bishops. There are some who would take a very hard line that any time a priest abuses someone that you ought to have a “one strike and you’re out” policy– that is, that ought to be it for him as a priest. There are others who would take a somewhat softer line, who would say that certainly the priests should not be in a position to abuse anyone again, but there might be other kinds of ministry that under certain circumstances would be appropriate. So I think that was a window into one of the points of debate going on inside the room today.
MARGARET WARNER: You speak of it as a window. How much do you all there covering it really know about what’s going on in these closed- door meetings? And you mentioned this press conference. Is that unprecedented?
JOHN ALLEN: No. When there are gatherings at the Vatican, whether they’re consistories of Cardinals, or synods of Bishops, there are always press briefings. But what was unusual… what was designed to be unusual this time is that we were going to be getting press briefings twice a day. That is, they were telling us we’d be getting briefings at 1:00, and then again at 8:00 Rome time. However, the evening briefing today was canceled because the Cardinals decided they needed time to work together on propositions they want to bring to tomorrow’s session. And from what we understand, at least the afternoon briefing tomorrow is also going to be canceled because the Pope has invited the U.S. Cardinals and Bishops to lunch.So some of the transparency and some of the, you know, overt cooperation with the press that we were promised apparently is not going to materialize.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, from what you do know, let’s look at a couple other issues and just tell me whether they were discussed today. How about the fate of Cardinal law?
JOHN ALLEN: Everything we are told by Cardinals who were in the room is that that issue did not come up, or that it came up only in one form, and that is Cardinal Law himself apparently apologized to his brother Cardinals and brother Bishops for his mishandling of the situation in Boston. He said to them — as was relayed to us by Cardinal George — that he was sorry for the mistakes he had made and he recognized that if he hadn’t made those mistakes, they might not find themselves here at all.
Beyond that, however, we are told that no Cardinal raised the issue of Cardinal Law’s resignation, nor did anyone from the Vatican side raise it. And so as far as this meeting is concerned, it is, at least for now, a closed subject.
MARGARET WARNER: And what about some of these other issues, such as homosexuality in the Church, the question of perhaps having married priests or women as priests– any of those come up?
JOHN ALLEN: What we are told by the Cardinals is that as of the end of the evening session today, those issues had not been raised in explicit form, except that, of course, they were raised at the press briefing today by journalists asking for responses to these questions from Bishop Wilton Gregory, who is the President of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference and Cardinal George. And what we are also told is that most… most of the participants in these meetings believe that Pope John Paul II has already given his definitive answers to those questions. That is, there’s not going to be a change in the teaching on celibacy, there’s not going to be a change in the ordination of women.
And therefore, while it might be useful to raise these issues as sort of trial balloons, the Cardinals are telling us they are not expecting them to be dominant means of conversation, nor do they expect dramatic policy departures at the end of this two-day summit.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. John Allen, thanks so much for joining us.
JOHN ALLEN: My pleasure. Thank you.