The Vatican Finally Speaks Up

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Pope John Paul II waves to the faithful

Few institutions prize symbolism as much as the Roman Catholic Church does. And over the past few months, as news surfaced about the sexual abuse of children and teens by priests from Boston to Los Angeles and evidence of official cover-ups grew, American Catholics looked to the Vatican for some kind of sign. The silence out of Rome was deafening until last Monday, when the Pope finally issued a call. America's embattled Cardinals — all 13 of them — were summoned to an unprecedented meeting to be solely devoted to the spreading uproar.

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The convocation, taking place today, means the Vatican has finally accepted that the American church's pedophilia problem is Rome's as well. "When there's a problem in the family, you call the members of the family together to discuss it," says a Vatican insider.

That may be so, but many observers believe the dramatic summons, which followed a secret visit to Rome by Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law, who has been under pressure to resign because of his handling of abuse cases in his archdiocese, was the result of a reluctant acknowledgment that the problem was beginning to hurt the church in tangible ways. Some parishioners in the U.S. have threatened to withhold funds until the controversy is addressed. "The profound and potentially long-lasting alienation of the laity is a very significant factor," says Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "It means the financial well-being of the church is at risk."

What can the meeting accomplish? That may depend on who leads it. Many feel that the man to watch will be not the frail Pope but Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, who heads the church's powerful Congregation for the Clergy. But the conservative Pontiff made headlines Saturday, ordering Bishops to "diligently investigate accusations" against priests for breaking their vows of celibacy. "It's a mistake to underestimate him," says George Weigel, the Pope's biographer.

Neither should the symbolism of ecclesiastic spectacle be underestimated. In a departure from Vatican tradition, the Cardinals' meeting is expected to provide daily briefings to the press. Few expect full disclosure of the discussions. The talks may range from debates on a formal policy to prevent and handle further abuse cases to deeper doctrinal conversations about celibacy and female priests. They will certainly set the agenda for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting, scheduled for June in Dallas. Meanwhile, the appearance of high-level openness may help calm troubled waters.

Weigel expects little material progress from the Vatican sessions. "It's two days," he says. "Two days! And these are extremely complex issues." But at least they are finally being confronted by the only men with the power to resolve them.

With reporting by Jeff Israely/Rome and Maggie Sieger/Chicago