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.
Addressing the cardinals' meeting on the morning of April 22, John Paul II said that "the abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God." After expressing his "profound sense of solidarity and concern" to "the victims and their families," John Paul acknowledged that some bishops had in fact made decisions "which subsequent events showed to be wrong." However they refined the criteria by which they made such decisions in the future, the bishops and indeed everyone in the Church had to know that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." The Pope then turned to the problem of the culture of dissent: Catholics, and indeed everyone in society, "...must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life."
It can be safely assumed that this would not have been said had there not been concern that some bishops and priests were not, in fact, "committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality," and that others were doing a very inadequate job of teaching and explaining that truth. On this linkage between the culture of dissent and the crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance, as on the point about the necessity of reforming religious orders (where problems of sexual misconduct are quite probably worse than among the diocesan clergy), the Pope's address to the cardinals' meeting connected the dots in the crisis in a way that had not happened in the Vatican before. The call to a "holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church" was also noteworthy: this was a crisis of fidelity, John Paul was insisting, and the answer to a crisis of fidelity could only be a deeper, more radical fidelity.
By April 25, 2002, five of the six points essential for understanding the crisis of the Catholic Church in the United States had at least been clarified in Rome. It was now broadly if not universally understood that the crisis was real: this was the Church's problem, not a problem artificially created by a hostile media. The Pope had made it clear that, while the crisis had psychological, legal, and even political dimensions, it was, at root, a spiritual crisis - a crisis of fidelity. The demographics of clerical sexual abuse were better understood and its critical homosexual dimension was being openly discussed, if sometimes more tentatively than the facts should have suggested. The linkage between the impact of a thirty-five year old culture of dissent and the crisis in both its dimensions - clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance - had been identified, if not thoroughly explored. And it had become evident to virtually all concerned that resolving the crisis would require more assertive and courageous leadership from the U.S. bishops than had been the case in the past.
What was not yet understood in Rome, it seemed, was that far more scandal was created by inept, and sometimes malfeasant, episcopal leadership than by the Church's frank admission that a bishop, even if not personally guilty of willful irresponsibility in handling cases of sexual abuse, could, by his bad judgment and bad decisions, lose his capacity to teach and govern. That issue would have to be addressed in the future, and indeed in the not-too-distant future.
Given the generally languid pace of the Vatican and the ingrained caution of Vatican officials determined not to do things in a panic, the learning curve in April 2002 was steep. That many important things about the crisis in the U.S. Church had been clarified in three weeks was encouraging for those committed to the cause of genuinely Catholic reform.
That the pace of reform would have to be accelerated in the months and years ahead was also clear. So was the need for a comprehensive agenda of reform.