Arriving at the Vatican at Easter 2002, even a knowledgeable American sympathetic to Roman ways would have had to conclude that the senior officials of the Holy See were about three months behind the curve in assessing the U.S. crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance. Vatican officials seemed to be about in the same condition as most American Catholics in early January, when the Boston scandals were breaking into the headlines: reeling, unsure just how much of this was real and how much was media hype, uncertain about sources of information, hesitant to believe that things were as bad as they might seem. Three weeks later, things in Rome had changed, if not dramatically then at least substantially.
The turn began on Tuesday, April 9. The day before, the Pope had had lunch with several American cardinals who were in Rome for the annual meeting of the Papal Foundation, a largely U.S.-funded agency that enables John Paul II to expand his charitable activities around the world: rebuilding seminaries in the former Soviet bloc, building AIDS clinics in Africa, and so forth. Conversation at lunch had naturally turned to the unfolding scandals in the U.S., but the cardinals present - Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, William Keeler of Baltimore, and Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. - did not seem to convey a sense of crisis: this was, they said, a time of "purification" from which the Church would emerge stronger. The tougher message was delivered at lunch on Tuesday by the president of the recently re-named U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois.
There were no preliminaries in this discussion. No sooner had the Pope said grace before meals than he turned to Bishop Gregory and asked, "What is the situation in the United States?" Gregory said that it was imperative that Rome understand that this was a crisis, in fact and not just in media perception. It was not going to be over anytime soon. More revelations of sexual abuse and episcopal mismanagement would be forthcoming. The Pope, who seemed determined that the U.S. bishops not face this alone, asked what he and the Holy See could do to help. Bishop Gregory, who was joined at lunch by the conference vice-president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, and the conference general secretary, Monsignor William Fay, replied that the bishops would try to adopt national personnel norms at their semi-annual meeting in June, and that the best thing the Holy See could do would be to put these norms on a fast track for approval when they were sent to Rome. The Americans were assured that that would happen.
John Paul was determined to do more than make the creaky Roman machinery move faster after the U.S. bishops' June meeting in Dallas. Later that week, shortly after Bishop Gregory and his colleagues had completed their three-day round of meetings in Rome, the Pope accepted a proposal that an interdepartmental ("interdicasterial," to the Vatican) meeting be called in Rome for April 22-23, to involve Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Castrillón of the Congregation for Clergy, all the American cardinals, the leadership of the U.S. bishops' conference, and other Roman officials, including the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano.
Responsibility for organizing the meeting was given to Cardinal Castrillón. The press immediately described this as the Pope "ordering the American cardinals to Rome," which if not strictly true (the cardinals were being summoned by Castrillón) at least helped communicate to worried American Catholics that the Pope was taking matters very seriously indeed.
The next step in the April drama came on Saturday, April 13, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston arrived in Rome secretly, five days after the Shanley case broke in the Boston press and created yet another furor. At lunch that day, Cardinal Law unsparingly laid out the situation as he understood it to the Pope, the papal secretaries, and Cardinal Re. That lunch, and meetings that Law had on Sunday and Monday with Cardinals Re, Ratzinger, and others, further drove home the message that a serious crisis was at hand. The same weekend, the Pope and his principal secretary, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, received a dossier of press materials on the crisis in the United States in its many dimensions; the dossier included commentary from prominent U.S. Catholics, known to be defenders of the Church and the pontificate, who were urging a clear-eyed view of the deep roots of the crisis and strong leadership in resolving it. Similar materials had not, it seemed, been forwarded to the papal apartment previously.