In a bid to bring healing to anguished American Catholics, the Vatican this week will address the priest-pedophilia scandal that, in just months, has eroded its US leaders' moral authority.
An unusual, hastily called meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul II, his advisers, and 12 US cardinals is aimed at stanching a torrent of negative press and getting a grip on the management of the spreading sex-abuse scandal.
The narrow goal of the meeting Tuesday and Wednesday is a Vatican-backed policy on how to uniformly handle cases of priest sexual abuse. But, say observers, the prelates are bound to tangle with broader related issues that could effect the political balance of Vatican power. Those issues include celibacy and homosexuality in the priesthood and increasing calls from the laity for power-sharing in church affairs and accountability of US church leaders, under whose watch the abuse scandal unfolded.
But observers familiar with the glacial pace of policy evolution in the church caution that a two-day meeting isn't likely to bring much satisfaction to Catholics looking for broad change.
"Everyone is looking for a silver bullet, but this meeting won't provide one," says Christopher Bellitto, a church historian and an editor at Paulist Press, a Catholic publishing house. "It will be one step in a long process of renewal that may take decades."
He echoes other Vatican watchers damping expectations, noting that much of the reform of the Second Vatican Council which lasted from 1962 to 1965 has yet to be implemented.
But with near-weekly revelations of new priest sex-abuse cases, say church analysts, speed is key.
"The most urgent thing is to reestablish credibility and confidence," says Dean Hoge, director of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America.
Lay Catholics have been stunned at the emergence in recent weeks of hundreds of cases of boys sexually abused by priests whose superiors continued to move the priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Victims' lawsuits that name bishops and even the Vatican as defendants are stacking up like legal cordwood from San Francisco to Palm Beach, Fla.
And church leadership is increasingly under fire. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, the most senior and powerful American cardinal, is clinging to his job amid growing calls for his resignation for allowing two priests with long records of pedophilia to be repeatedly transferred. And this weekend, New York's Cardinal Edward Egan apologized for mistakes he might have made in his handling of sexual-abuse allegations against priests when he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn.
Nearly a third of US Catholics polled by Quinnipiac University say their faith in bishops and cardinals had been shaken. That sentiment was clearly a factor in the Vatican's hasty summons to Rome to discuss policies "meant to restore security and serenity" in the laity and to restore "trust to the clergy."
"We have not had a crisis of authority in the American Catholic church such as this before," says Michael Engh, a professor at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles. "American Catholics are looking for reassurance. And this is meant to bring the prestige of the papacy behind the cardinals."
Several observers agree that the meetings will concentrate on how the US church should handle the pedophilia scandal. A unified approach among all the 194 US dioceses is necessary for reporting child abuse cases to civil authorities instead of handled internally, those observers say.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the US Bishops' conference, said the cardinals would examine whether there should be a "one strike and you're out" rule for pedophile priests. Most dioceses have had policies to deal with such cases since the early 1990s. But policies and enforcement vary greatly. Even a binding national policy might not be enforced or implemented evenly, say some observers. They note that in referring to a national reporting policy for the sex-abuse, church officials refer repeatedly to a policy of turning over "credible allegations" to police.
This is not reassuring to some social workers and police who've said they want to make the determination of what is credible themselves, without an intermediary.
Other possible policy discussions in the Vatican meeting, say analysts, are likely to include better screening of future priests at seminaries and better training for priests in handling cases where other priests have abused children. Also, issues of the celibacy requirement and homosexuality in the priesthood are bound to come up.
On Saturday, John Paul made his views clear in a meeting with visiting Nigerian bishops: "Behavior which might give scandal must be carefully avoided, and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such behavior, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist."
A more difficult problem for the pope and cardinals, say analysts, is how to restore credibility in church leadership without losing the political edge in the church hierarchy. If Cardinal Law, whose resignation was reportedly rejected by the Vatican, is allowed to resign, the domino effect of possible other resignations could undermine the ultra-conservative hierarchy's power.
And for Catholics like James Muller, the issue of power is the root of all the church's problems. He's a Boston physician and ardent Catholic who's been converted to activism by the church sex scandal.
"We have two problems in our church," he says, "only one of which is priest pedophilia. We covered it all up. And that's an institutional problem of the church. I'd like to see that as a topic of discussion at the Vatican. I believe the root problem in this cover-up is unchecked power of the hierarchy."
His message of shaking the church hierarchy with grass-roots democracy and raw financial clout of well-heeled donors is apparently a compelling message. In three days last week, Muller's new group, Voice of the Faithful, grew from 400 supporters to 1,500. It wants the laity to help select their bishops, instead of the pope alone. It also wants a larger role for women in the church and serious debate on allowing priests to marry concerns shared by many US Catholics.