When Pope John Paul II holds an extraordinary meeting this week with American cardinals to discuss the growing crisis stemming from charges that current and former priests indulged in sexual abuse and pedophilia, the world will be watching to see whether the head of the Catholic Church recognizes the enormity and seriousness of the problem.
If John Paul does nothing more than give the cardinals a "talking to," as one church insider suggested recently on a national television talk show, the credibility of "Christ's vicar on earth" will be greatly damaged. The pope's moral authority would be undermined.
The scandal that has rocked the American Catho lic Church does not begin and end with priests. There is growing evidence that influential members of the church's hierarchy, most notably Ber nard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, treated the allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia in a way that smacks of a cover-up. Rather than immediately relieving the priests of their pastoral duties and turning over the allegations to prosecutors for investigation, Law and other bishops sought to silence the accusers with monetary payoffs and to protect the priests by reassigning them to other parishes.
It is this behavior by the leaders of the church that Pope John Paul II must address without equivocation. The pope should appoint a panel of lay people and clergy to investigate the charges that have been made against the bishops and to recommend punishment for those who are found to have violated their sacred oaths. Indeed, Cardinal Law's own definition of a bishop's responsibilities should be used to guide the panel's investigation.
Here's what he said in dismissing the growing chorus of calls for his resignation: "It's important to remember that a bishop is not a corporate executive, is not a politician ... the role of a bishop in relationship to the church he serves is something different. It's the role of a pastor, the role of a teacher, the role of a father."
The idea that the crisis in the American Catholic Church is the result of a grand conspiracy by the English-speaking press is at once insulting and laughable, but that's what one high-ranking prelate in Rome seemed to suggest recently.
According to The New York Times, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, lost his patience with reporters, refusing to answer questions. Cardinal Hoyos commented on the fact that almost all the journalists questioning him on what the church intends to do to prevent future scandals were English-speaking, the Times reported.
"It's already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions were in English," he said.
No, the X-ray of the problem is the failure of the church's hierarchy to deal with the problem of sexual abuse and pedophilia by priests in an honest, open, Christian manner.
Pope John Paul II must make it clear to the American cardinals that they can no longer hide behind the protective veil of the church.