April 30, 2002

In the Catholic catechism, schoolchildren learn the seven deadly sins.

There is Lust, which ran unchecked --- in a tortured, destructive form --- in the Catholic priesthood.

There is Greed, which prompted Catholic prelates to defame victims rather than face civil fines and depleted contributions.

And then there is Pride, which was on infuriating display last week in Rome, where the most compelling tableau was the row of empty chairs at a Vatican news conference. Only two of the 12 American cardinals there bothered to attend.

As American Catholics waited and prayed for a glimmer of humility, the princes of the church strutted off to what one church official called ''other obligations,'' as if there were something more pressing than the rape of children.

And while conservatives back home yammered that the answer was a return to clerical austerity, Cardinal Edward Egan luxuriated at a five-star hotel near the Pantheon. (Add Gluttony to the list.)

When the cardinals issued a statement targeting ''notorious'' predatory priests, that notorious protector of predators, Cardinal Bernard Law, was hiding in a friend's apartment inside the Vatican.

This was supposed to be the moment when these shamed vicars would make an extraordinary act of contrition, when the men who usually urge redemption angled for their own.

But the leaders of a church built on symbols could not even manage the symbolism. The empty chairs sent an unequivocal message: They hadn't learned a thing.

The cardinals chose defiance over deference to the expectations of their devastated flock, which thought that celibacy, women priests and married priests might be discussed.

The shepherds opted for arcane legalisms over actual remorse, meaningless distinctions over meaningful changes: An abusive priest might or might not be ejected from the club, depending on the age of his victims and the frequency of his transgressions, and how long ago the abuse occurred.

Was he a ''serial'' offender or a hobbyist, intent on abusing or inebriated? To the hair-splitting cardinals, these variables still seemed to matter. To enraged American Catholics, they no longer do.

We are angry that these spiritual arbiters are unyielding when the ''sins'' belong to us, not to them.

We have relatives whose lives were choked because they could not get annulments --- and thus remarry in the church --- after their spouses betrayed and abandoned them.

We know faithfully married women who are forced to violate the Vatican stricture against birth control if they don't want 13 babies. We are friends with gay Catholics who are expected to sacrifice intimacy to maintain their faith.

Rome has resisted modernity, clinging to black and white.

But --- astonishingly, disgustingly --- on the matter of molestation, which any sane person does see in black and white, the cardinals divine shades of gray.

It took them three days and a deafening chorus of disapproval before they ostensibly agreed on a one-grope-and-you're-out policy. They can still water that down at the bishops conference in June.

And it will be a miracle if they don't, given the increasing evidence that church leaders in America, and perhaps even the Holy See, have engaged in a huge conspiracy, spurred by fear of blackmail. They knowingly put children in harm's way because they did not want the priests they should have punished to divulge the church's hypocrisy.

Even as the cardinals were making their way back from Rome, the Archdiocese of Boston released new documents in the case of the Rev. Paul Shanley, an unabashed molester who made a speech in 1977 asserting that no sexual act in and of itself causes damage to children, not even incest or bestiality.

The documents show that Shanley threatened to spill the church's sexual secrets if he wasn't allowed to keep his street ministry. They also include a 1972 essay in which the priest boasted: ''My name is to be found in the files of countless VD clinics in this fair land. One of the first things I do in a new city is to sign up at the local clinics for help with my VD.''

In the cardinals' Vatican statement, they said of the church, ''A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains.''

Not at this rate.

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