Cardinal William H. Keeler said yesterday that when he meets next week in Rome with other American cardinals, he will endorse a proposal requiring every Roman Catholic diocese to report allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities.
But Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, said at a news conference at his downtown offices that he believes the scandal over Roman Catholic priests molesting children has been largely driven by the news media.
Although such abuse has occurred elsewhere - Ireland, Poland, Canada and Austria, among others, have had high-profile scandals in recent years - the intense news media coverage in this country leaves the impression that it is solely an American problem, Keeler said.
"It's really the media of the United States that has made this an American problem," Keeler said. "We're in this feeding-frenzy situation right now, where the coverage of cases of 20, 30 years ago is being plastered in the headlines."
Keeler added that he felt the news media are singling out the Catholic Church and its priests when sexual abuse of minors is actually far more common among men who abuse family members.
Keeler was initially reluctant to speak publicly on the sex abuse scandal, answering media inquiries through a spokesman. During the past month, he has addressed it briefly in the Catholic Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, and in homilies delivered during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday.
The meetings Tuesday and Wednesday will be an opportunity for the eight American cardinals who lead the large and historic dioceses in this country to brief Vatican officials on the extent of the sexual abuse problem and strategies for dealing with it. The cardinals will meet principally with three high-ranking Vatican cardinals - Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Joseph Ratzinger and Giovanni Battista Re, who oversee the church's clergy, doctrine and bishops, respectively - and are expected to speak with Pope John Paul II as well.
"It will be an opportunity to take a positive step forward in addressing what has become a very vexing challenge for Catholics in the United States," Keeler said.
Keeler said he would encourage his brother cardinals to move toward adopting a national policy on dealing with sexual abuse that would be binding on all dioceses, which would include mandatory reporting of allegations to civil authorities. The national bishops conference approved such a policy a decade ago when Keeler served as its president, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore adopted it as local policy. Keeler says there have been no recent, credible allegations against Baltimore Archdiocese priests.
But at that time, the bishops' conference did not have the authority to require local dioceses to adopt the policy nationally. Only about half of states have laws requiring church workers to report sexual abuse to authorities, and many dioceses that were not required, like Boston and New York, did not reveal allegations over the years.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that bishops conferences could make binding declarations if they were approved unanimously, or by a two-thirds vote with papal approval, clearing the way for the adoption of a national policy on sexual abuse.
The bishops are expected to discuss adopting such a policy at their next meeting in June in Dallas, and Keeler said he would like to gain approval for the concept from Vatican officials in anticipation of the June meeting.
Church observers have warned against expecting too much from next week's high-level gathering.
"There is a danger of having excessively high expectations of what can come from this meeting," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly magazine and an expert on Catholic hierarchy. "Obviously, the pope cannot micromanage the priest personnel policies of every diocese in the U.S. But the cardinals could float ideas with the pope and get his reactions. When the bishops meet in Dallas in June, it would be very helpful to have some idea of what proposals would have the backing of the pope."
As Keeler flies to Rome on Sunday, his taped voice will be echoing in churches throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore in a five-minute message addressing clergy sexual abuse, asking for information about anyone who has suffered abuse by a church employee, and announcing a new plan to alleviate the clergy shortage.
Called "The Hope That Lies Before Us," the plan is a 15-year strategy that advocates working to recruit more priests and lessening the load on the shrinking number priests by transferring tasks like administrative duties and ministries that don't require a priest to religious sisters and laypeople.