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The Vatican is the problem
A deeply conservative hierarchy stymies Catholics who seek change. Is it time for reform, or a new Reformation?

THE SCANDALS rocking the Catholic Church involve an amalgam of sexual misconduct, of which pedophilia and rape are the worst manifestations. But on a deeper level, other wrongs revealed by the scandal are even more disturbing: the abuse of trust by clergymen and their superiors; the cover-ups and deception practiced by bishops and cardinals; and the lies told and countenanced by Bernard Cardinal Law to protect Reverend Paul Shanley, a predator so vile that he makes defrocked priest and serial child abuser John Geoghan seem almost pathetic. Believers and non-believers alike can accept the sad human truth that the flesh is weak. What becomes increasingly incomprehensible to people of goodwill and common sense is the widespread institutional and intellectual corruption that enabled those acts of violation to occur.

The depth and breadth of the shocking situation continues to grow. Maine, New Hampshire, Boston, Providence, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, Dallas, St. Petersburg, Oregon, and Los Angeles are all roiled with allegations of sexual misconduct and cover-up. A ranking bishop in Ireland has resigned. A Polish bishop who once served as a Vatican aide to Pope John Paul II is under investigation. And allegations are spiraling out of Sicily.

As one man who says he was abused by Reverend Shanley asked in a story in the Boston Herald, "If the Catholic Church in America does not fit the description of organized crime, what does?" But the weight of expert opinion holds that it is difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute Church leaders for these events in criminal court in the US. Bishops in other countries have faced criminal prosecution. Last year, in France, a bishop received a suspended sentence for not reporting a pedophile priest. And in 1998, in Belgium, a cardinal was held responsible for the crimes of a pedophile, although that decision was later reversed on appeal. Itís all but certain that Shanley ó a priest in "good standing" who has not been defrocked ó will face criminal investigation. But whether the Law's lies will provoke similar action remains to be seen.

At best, Church leaders may face civil liability. To date, the culpability of its leaders has cost the Church well over a billion dollars nationwide. And that figure is rapidly climbing. As we have noted before, in these tight economic times the cost of diverting scarce resources from charitable works to settlements is an outrage in and of itself (see "The Price of Perversity," News and Features, March 15,

Itís mystifying that Law continues to resist calls that he resign his position as archbishop of Boston. With each passing week the chorus grows, and itís full of establishmentarian voices. Among the most recent are Jack Connors, the advertising executive who may be Bostonís ultimate fixer and insider; Thomas P. OíNeil III, the former lieutenant governor and a shrewd back-room operator; and Democratic gubernatorial candidates Robert Reich and Warren Tolman, the latter a churchgoing Catholic and father of three.

But Law plays to an audience of one: the pope. And on matters of internal Church affairs, the pope and his cardinal advisers are at best deeply conservative and at worst ó from our point of view ó deeply reactionary. But theirs is the point of view that matters. When the Vatican says that it believes that criticism of the Church stems from an attempt to further causes like a married clergy, an expanded role for women, and integration of gays and lesbians into the fabric of the Church, they are right. Since the 1960s, when the Vatican ignored the advice of American bishops and came out foursquare against birth control, Romeís hold on its American flock has slipped. But the Vatican grossly underestimates the degree of American outrage over the current scandal. Even influential, brand-name conservative Catholics of deep devotion, such as William Buckley Jr. and Patrick Buchanan, are outraged at the position taken by Church leaders at home and abroad.

What is to be done? There are those who hope that the present crisis will lead to a new, more-flexible approach to matters of reform. This outcome, however, remains unlikely. If Cardinal Law were to resign today, a man of equally ó if not more ó conservative temperament would replace him in short order. And when death comes to the aging Pope John Paul II, there is no reason to believe that his successor will not share most or all of his core convictions.

So if gradual reform is unlikely, what will work? Perhaps it is time for a modern Reformation, a hugely challenging and conflict-ridden task. If the Soviet empire could wither and be replaced by a peaceful Eastern Europe (the Balkans excepted), why canít the American Church, or large communities within it, withdraw from Romeís orbit and establish a spiritual community that meets the needs of the 21st century?

In the 16th century, the first Reformation wracked Europe with a series of religious and political revolutions, resulting in the partial disruption of the Western Catholic Church and the establishment of various national and territorial churches. Todayís Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, and Congregational churches all emerged from that movement. The medieval Church was essentially an international state. Time has dulled the power and potency of Romeís temporal influence, but it retains formidable force ó which it often exercises for good causes. Unfortunately, it also often exercises its power in ways that have led to the pain and suffering experienced by abused children and adolescents across America and around the world.

This may smack of presumptuousness, but for more than 40 years, a large portion of the American Church has inhabited a spiritual universe parallel to Romeís. Many Catholics ignore Church doctrine on birth control and abortion, favor married priests, and would welcome the ordination of women and the Churchís embrace of gay and lesbian believers.

If Rome wonít accommodate American Catholics, maybe itís time to formalize its parallel relation to the American Church. A newly minted Reformed Catholic Church might have its roots in America, but its appeal would be international.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: April 11 - 18, 2002
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