Vatican: Cardinals Will 'Reflect and Pray' on Sex Abuse Crisis


David Gibson

Religion Reporter
The Vatican announced Monday that the world's cardinals, assembling in Rome next week to welcome two dozen new members to their ranks, will gather a day early for "reflection and prayer" on several topics, including the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The late Pope John Paul II brought together American cardinals at the Vatican for two days in 2002 to discuss the scandals and a response, efforts that were criticized as too little or too late. And bishops of various countries -- such as Ireland -- have met with Vatican officials periodically to discuss efforts to address the global crisis.

But the schedule of next week's meeting appears to leave little time for any in-depth engagement on the crisis by the 200 or so members of the College of Cardinals. Most of the day will be given over to issues of religious freedom, Vatican efforts to make the Mass more traditional, and the campaign by Pope Benedict XVI to bring disaffected conservative Anglicans into the Catholic fold -- efforts that took a major step forward Monday when five bishops of the Church of England announced they would become Catholic because they oppose the opening to women bishops and gay priests by some in the Anglican Communion.

sexual abuse scandalMoreover, the special meeting on Nov. 19 was announced by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a retired Italian prelate who resides in a palatial apartment in the Vatican and still wields great influence despite his role in protecting the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who turned out to be a corrupt and notorious abuser.

Sodano has also been a vocal defender of Benedict against criticism of his handling of the sexual abuse scandals.

"Talking about abuse is easy, preventing abuse is hard," said Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest victims advocacy organization. "It takes decisive action to oust predator priests and complicit bishops. And when it comes to abuse, this pope, like his predecessors, has shown little commitment to real action."

"Before any hopes get raised, let's remember that it's likely that every man in that room next week has ignored and concealed clergy sex crimes or is doing so right now," Blaine said. "The prospects of substantial reform happening next week are therefore pretty slim."

Also working against any prospects for concrete action is the fact that it appears the cardinals will have little time to discuss the crisis.

According to the Vatican statement, the cardinals will gather in a Vatican meeting hall at 9:30, and after morning prayer will listen to talks by two top papal aides on two topics: first, the situation of international religious liberty, an issue of great concern to the Vatican in Islamic countries and also in Western nations where the pope believes secularism is impinging on religious freedom; second, a talk on "the liturgy in the life of the church today," which sources say refers to efforts by the Vatican to reverse reforms of the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. That "reform of the reform," as Benedict has called it," aims to restore a more traditional, Latin-based style to the liturgy and has met with great resistance from many bishops around the world.

The cardinals will re-convene at 5 p.m. for vespers, the evening prayers, after which they will hear a talk from a senior Vatican official on the 10 years since the publication of a controversial Vatican document, "Dominus Jesus," which raised hackles for reasserting the view that the Catholic Church was the one, true church that could offer salvation through Jesus and saying that Protestant churches, for example, are "ecclesial communities" and "not Churches in the proper sense."

Finally, Cardinal William Levada, chief doctrinal officer of the Vatican, will give two talks -- one on another controversial initiative by the pope, the plan unveiled last year to entice conservative Anglicans upset with their own church to come into the Catholic fold. That plan has met with mixed success so far, and has perturbed Anglican leaders as well as many Catholic churchmen.

The second talk by Levada is titled "Response of the Church to Cases of Sexual Abuse." It is unclear whether the format will allow for any back-and-forth among the cardinals, or even whether there would be any time for discussion given the limited window allotted.

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who will be in Rome to receive a red hat in his elevation to the rank of cardinal, said that if he is asked his views at the meeting he would point to the American church as a way forward.

"I think what we've done in the U.S. is a very good model," Wuerl told The Washington Post. "The issue now is essentially behind us. The concentration today has to be on victims. There is the question of awareness, of removing people from priesthood, those were done a long time ago."

Pope Benedict has been on the defensive for much of the past year in his efforts to convince Catholics that he is addressing the clergy abuse crisis. Under intense pressure, he has met privately with abuse victims on a number of occasions, and his statements of regret over the actions of priests have grown increasingly strong over time. But he has focused on personal conversion among clerics as the key to reform rather than accountability for the hierarchy or other structural mechanisms.