There are two problems with curial cardinals. The first is that they haven't a clue about the United States. The second is that they think they do. Thus the six men who reviewed the protocols and norms for sex abusing priests from the Dallas meeting have no sense of how American culture works and how public opinion is formed. Moreover, they firmly believe sex abuse results from the pervasive sexual immorality in the United States.

There is plenty of evidence that the sexual abuse of the weak by the powerful is part of the human condition and that abusing priests are to be found in every Catholic culture. The Church in this country was merely the first to recognize the problem and to try to do something about it, however belatedly.

Thus it patently didn't occur to any of the cardinals in Rome that their questions would be spun into a rejection of the Dallas proposals. Yet it should have been obvious that their relatively harmless requests would be be seen (even before the document was read) as playing the same old cover-up game--as it has been by the media, by the victims and by many, perhaps most, Catholics.

Rome does not grasp the anger among American Catholics. It does not understand that the anger is less at sexual abusers than it is at their leaders for tolerating and abetting it through the years. It does not comprehend the massive loss of episcopal credibility. It has not, perhaps cannot, begin to realize that the laity will calm down only when a couple of American cardinals are forced from office. It hasn't the faintest notion that if, at the end of the day, it rejects the Dallas charter, lay anger will be focused on the Vatican.

The temper of the American laity, one must insist, should not be attributed to the media. True enough, the media have enjoyed a delicious feeding frenzy. However, they did not reassign abusing priests. Americans have strong resistance to media hype. They're angry not because the media made them angry but because their bishops did.

Thus it would have been much better if Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re's letter were not written. Instead, the committee to consider problems of clarification should have been constituted quietly. Now the expectation is that there will be a sellout, that priests' rights will once again be given precedence over the rights of the laity. This may well happen--and then, like I say, Katie bar the door. However, it hasn't happened yet.

The issue of due process for priests is one that in this country above all should be taken seriously. An American is innocent until proven guilty. He has the right to know the charges against him, the right to competent legal counsel, the right to face his accusers, the right to appeal. So, in fact, does every human being accused of a crime, including, by the way, a theologian denounced to the Holy Office (which admits none of these rights). While on an emergency basis a priest may be removed from a parish, he has the right, if he so demands, to a full hearing before he is thrown out of the priesthood--a hearing in which all those rights are honored.

Accusations are not enough, as we Chicagoans learned when the late Cardinal Bernardin was accused falsely. No one should be ejected from the priesthood on the strength of accusations without being given the opportunity to defend himself.

All of this should be self-evident. In the fury currently gripping the American church, it apparently is not. That puts the Vatican in the strange situation where it is playing the same role in Church law that--as Thomas Reese, the editor of America magazine, has pointed out--the American Civil Liberties Union plays in American secular law. There are a lot of ironies in the fire.

I don't think Cardinal Re should have written the letter in the present context. However, it is well that he and his colleagues are worried about protecting the rights of priests. Everyone needs to know very clearly what due process means.

Some people are calling for American Catholics to break from Rome. That is not about to happen. Still, it reminds me of a remark Father Hans Kung made many years ago: "Why leave? Luther tried that and it didn't work!"

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