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Pope John Paul II to Meet with US Catholic Leaders - 2002-04-16

American Catholics will be closely watching next week's meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul II and several U.S. Cardinals to discuss the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church in the United States. Many American Catholics are expecting more than just talk from next week's meeting.

It took several months, but the spreading sex abuse scandal involving Catholic priests and young people in the United States has finally caught the attention of the Vatican.

The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, said the pope's decision to summon leading American Cardinals is a step in the right direction. But he says the meeting must lead to action. "Well, I think that the Cardinals who are going and the Cardinals who are resident there [at the Vatican] need to understand clearly the stakes that are involved and the ways that the Holy See can help us. So, if that does not take place, any action plan will not rest upon the kind of foundation that would make it effective."

Within the past few years, thousands of American Catholics have come forward alleging that they were the victims of sexual abuse by priests when they were young.

Among them is Lori Haigh of California who recently told CBS television, "I was molested by my parish priest from the ages of 14 to 17. When I was 16, I was impregnated by him, and he paid for my abortion."

The priest involved in that case denied the allegations. But the church recently settled the case by paying Lori Haig more than $1 million in damages.

Beyond the incidents of sexual abuse, many American Catholics are angry at the way in which the U.S. Catholic leadership has responded to the problem.

The most notable case is in Boston where Cardinal Bernard Law has so far resisted calls that he resign following revelations that some priests accused of sexual abuse were simply moved from parish to parish in hopes that the problem would go away.

That in turn has sparked intense reactions from American Catholics. "People have become so critical of the Roman Catholic Church and why the bishops kept moving priests from parish to parish, I do not know the reason why they were not more up front," said one Catholic.

"I don't question the religion but I question the leadership, maybe, on trying to control it a little bit better than has been done rather than hide it," said another.

Thomas O'Connor is a Professor of History at Boston College who has long studied the impact of the Catholic Church on the United States. "What I think many people cannot understand and cannot forgive is the whole cover-up, which has gone on for 20 or 25 years," he said. "And a cover-up that has been so total and so effective over such a long period of time. I think it is probably the single most damaging factor currently in the church scandal."

Professor O'Connor says there is a sense of relief that the Vatican has recognized how serious the sex abuse scandal is. But he says many American Catholics will not be satisfied unless the church comes up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem of sexual abuse by clergy.

"If Rome just sees this situation as a local situation and views it as just an aberration that can be solved by jailing the perpetrators and maybe accepting the resignation of one or two cardinals, I mean, if that is as far as it goes, then I think you will find that the crisis will continue," Professor O'Connor said. "And indeed, I think you will find that level of anger will rise."

A recent poll found that 60 percent of Catholics believed that church leaders have not handled the sex abuse scandal well. But in the same poll, 83 percent said that the scandal had not shaken their faith in Catholicism