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Abuse scandal to shadow pope's U.S. trip

Religion News Service

April 15, 2008, 10:33AM

The scandal of clergy sex abuse has dominated the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in America for much of this decade. Will it be a dominant theme this week when Pope Benedict XVI arrives for the first U.S. visit of his papacy?

The Vatican clearly hopes not. Its spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters in Rome last week that the pope would focus on religious and moral values during the trip.

And the pope said during a videotaped message that the purpose of the trip was "to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition."

Though Vatican officials have not said so, they have sent strong signals that they want to minimize the role the abuse scandal plays during the pope's visit.

One signal is to be found in the pope's itinerary.

The Boston Archdiocese — ground zero in the sex abuse scandal — tried to persuade the pope to visit there during his U.S. trip. Some believed a visit to Boston could have sent a strong signal that the pope wanted to help heal the damage done by the scandal.

But it was a bitter disappointment to many abuse victims when it was announced last fall that the pope would visit only New York and Washington.

"As to why he's not going to Boston, the official answer is that he's 80 ... and can't go everywhere," said John L. Allen Jr., a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of a Benedict biography. "That's certainly part of the picture, but unofficially, it's also clear that organizers did not want to make the crisis the dominant story of the trip."

Another signal can be found in the list of church leaders who will accompany the pope on his U.S. visit.

That list, provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, includes the name of every American cardinal in Rome except one — Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the archbishop of Boston during the height of the abuse scandal.

"My suspicion is that there was never any serious consideration of Law accompanying the pope," Allen said. "On both sides of the water, everyone understands what a public relations debacle that would be."

In early 2002, diocesan documents released to the public by court order revealed that Law had shielded abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish. He became a symbol of the failure of the Catholic leadership to address the problem.

Later that year, Law resigned his post and moved to Rome. Today, he oversees the Basilica of St. Mary Major and holds offices in eight departments of the Roman Curia. He remains a lightning rod for criticism in the United States.

"Law accompanying the pope would certainly have rubbed even more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of hundreds of thousands of America's Catholics and tens of thousands of America's clergy sex abuse victims," said David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Leaving Law out of the entourage does not signal a new sensitivity on the issue on the Vatican's part, Clohessy said.

"The church's highest ranking official lives close to and works closely with the world's most discredited and deceitful cardinal in the literal and figurative power center of Catholicism. That alone is extraordinarily callous and speaks volumes about the Vatican's continuing tolerance of clergy sex cover-ups," he said.

Though he has taken steps to minimize the attention placed on abusive priests during his visit, the pope is not likely to ignore the issue altogether.

Vatican officials have said Benedict will talk about the abuse scandal Saturday, when he celebrates Mass for American clergy at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's second-highest-ranking official, told the Associated Press last week that Benedict would "try to open the path of healing and reconciliation" with his comments.

Allen said he expects the pope to express remorse about the abuse and hope that the church will recover from it.

"That will be a welcome message for some," he said. "I suspect those most scarred by the crisis, especially the victims, will likely be disappointed that the pope isn't saying and doing more."

Clohessy, of SNAP, said he will be satisfied only if the pope announces specific, proven reforms.

Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based lay group that grew out of the abuse scandal, would like to see the pope reach out to abuse victims during his visit and commit to greater accountability for the damage the clergy abuse has caused, said its president, Dan Bartley.

"It is very difficult for American Catholics to accept the fact that after thousands of victims and $2.3 billion in payments, only one bishop has resigned," Bartley said. "How can our church be a moral beacon when so many bishops who repeatedly transferred known abusers remain in office?"

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests