The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, April 27, 2002  

First Among Equals

Attempting to clarify the stance of U.S. cardinals with respect to the Catholic Church's response to priests and religious guilty of abusing minors, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said yesterday that all of the cardinals favor a zero-tolerance policy.

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the cardinals said after their meeting in Rome that "they would lobby U.S. bishops to support a binding policy that would make it easier to defrock 'serial' and 'notorious' abusers of minors. But the cardinals' statement stopped short of recommending an unequivocal zero-tolerance rule for first-time abusers."

It sure sounded like that to us.

But Cardinal Bevilacqua, who we see emerging as the primus inter pares of the American cardinals, upon returning to the U.S. was startled to hear of the perception that there was some disagreement among the cardinals. He maintains there is no question whatsoever that the cardinals unanimously favor adopting a zero-tolerance (one strike and you're out) policy. "I want to say that all of the cardinals are agreed on zero tolerance -- and by that I mean that we all are agreed that no priest, guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor, will function in any ecclesiastic ministry or any capacity in our dioceses," said Cardinal Bevilacqua.

"We intend to support this zero-tolerance position at the June meeting of the conference of bishops," Cardinal Bevilacqua added. If the policy is approved by two-thirds of the nation's roughly 400 bishops, it would be sent to the Vatican for review. If accepted, the rule would be mandatory in every U.S. diocese.

Cardinal Bevilacqua said he was speaking on behalf of all U.S. cardinals, many of whom were in Philadelphia for the 13th American Cardinals Dinner. "The cardinal said the group had agreed that he deliver the clarification alone because not every cardinal came to the fund-raising event," according to the Inquirer.

Nonetheless, there are hints that not everyone is on board. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said yesterday that the Church leadership's position seems clear with respect to the worst offenders. But she stopped short of saying there was complete agreement on how far the zero-tolerance policy would extend. [Ed.: The Inquirer incorrectly referred to the conference as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization that merged with the U.S. Catholic Conference in July 2001 to form the USCCB.]

The Inquirer quotes the spokeswoman, Sister Mary Ann Walsh: "Cardinal Bevilacqua made it very clear that he is in favor of zero tolerance in Philadelphia, and Bishop [Wilton] Gregory made it very clear that that is his view in Belleville, Ill. But I think some people are concerned about exactly what zero tolerance means."

We doubt Sister Walsh is pulling this notion out of thin air. More likely, she has been getting wind of some grumbling among the bishops.

Our take: With the passing of New York's Cardinal John O'Connor and the shaming of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, Cardinal Bevilacqua is now the dominant voice in the American Catholic Church, this despite the fact that Bishop Gregory is the president of the USCCB.

And while Cardinal Bevilacqua may be correct in his assessment of the position of the cardinals, there are several hundred bishops from whom we haven't yet heard and we doubt the cardinal has spoken with more than a handful of them on this matter.

Cardinal Bevilacqua's rising profile and unequivocal remarks demonstrate an intent to take control of the Church's response to the controversy, and we do not see any in the Church hierarchy willing to challenge him. So, it is up to Cardinal Bevilacqua to "sell" the zero-tolerance policy to the bishops. His remarks in Philadelphia yesterday carried a tone of "This is how it's gonna' be, fellas," leading us to believe the zero-tolerance policy will be adopted at the Dallas conference in June.

Should he prove successful on this issue, Cardinal Bevilacqua will have established himself firmly as the most powerful leader of the Church in America and the favorite of the Vatican as well.

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