After three days in which Pope Benedict XVI has persistently addressed the scandal of child sexual abuse by priests, a top Vatican official said yesterday that the church is considering changes to the canon laws that govern how it handles such cases.
The official, Cardinal William J. Levada, would not specify which canons were under reconsideration. But he suggested that they related to the church's statute of limitations, saying that his office has frequently had to judge allegations from years ago because the victims "don't feel personally able to come forward until" until they are more mature.
The comments by the cardinal, who heads the Vatican office that rules on cases of sexual abuse that are forwarded to Rome by bishops throughout the world, were apparently spontaneous, and came in response to three reporters as he left a luncheon in New York given by Time magazine.
The Vatican has been reluctant to focus attention on the scandal until this trip. But in what appears to be a carefully scripted effort, Pope Benedict brought the scandal up on each of the first three days of his trip, his first visit to the United States as pope, underscoring the message that he understands the lingering bitterness over the church's handling of the issue.
"It has overshadowed the trip," said the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, the president of Fordham University, who attended the luncheon with Levada. "None of us expected it, but everyone is grateful that he did. What he realized is that this is a pastoral visit and he must be pastor to those who are hurt most - and that is the victims."
American bishops had lobbied the Vatican for months to meet with victims, and got word in February that he would do so. The victims were chosen by the Boston Archdiocese and were contacted two weeks ago. One met with two church officials at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant outside of Boston, where he learned of the invitation.
Many victims say they have been heartened by the pope's attention to the issue but are waiting warily for him to match his words with actions. They want the church to do more to prevent priests from abusing children, and in particular, to hold bishops accountable for keeping abusive priests in ministry.
In some cases, Levada said, "we've been able to make exceptions" to the statute of limitations that "allow us to handle cases in which strong measures need to be taken."
The statute of limitations under the church's canon law is 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday, said Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and a civil and canon lawyer.
Six years after the scandal erupted, first in Boston and then nationwide, Levada said, his office is still dealing with a "backlog" of abuse cases from the United States, though they are slowly being reduced. In addition, there are fresh allegations every year, but far fewer than in the first three years of the scandal.
At the luncheon, where he sat on a stage and fielded a few questions, he said he did not foresee sanctioning bishops who failed to remove priests suspected of molesting young people.
"I personally do not accept that there is a broad base of bishops who are guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles, and if I thought there were, or knew of them, I would certainly talk to the pope about what could be done about it," the cardinal said.
"I am aware of bishops who have admitted to making mistakes, but those seem to be mistakes grounded in taking counsel that didn't turn out to be good advice," he said, explaining that he was referring to reports from psychologists and therapists.
The pope's decision to reach out to victims and to speak out publicly, and repeatedly, about sexual abuse, said Levada, came at the urging of several key church officials in the United States: Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, archbishop of Boston; Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, an Italian who is the papal nuncio, or chief Vatican diplomat, to the United States.
Pope Benedict has used emotional language to convey his anguish over the abuse. On the plane from Rome, he answered only four written questions from reporters submitted in advance, and one was about sexual abuse by priests. He said he was "deeply ashamed."
And in his homily at a festive outdoor Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, Pope Benedict said: "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving and pastoral attention."
He reads his speeches from texts that have been prepared in advance in Rome after consultations with church leaders in the country he is visiting, Catholic officials say.
But it is his meeting with victims - a private session - that has spoken far louder than his words, said David Gibson, a Catholic journalist and author of The Rule of Benedict.
"It wasn't even visual. Just the very fact of it was as powerful as his words," he said. "They didn't want it to be the story line. But it has been the story line. The irony is that this story line - the sexual abuse scandal - has done more than anything else could have to help us see the Pope Benedict that the Vatican wanted us to see."
No matter how many expressions of remorse come from the pope, however, many victims will not be mollified until the church holds bishops accountable. Many victims and their parents have memories of being rebuffed when they tried to alert a bishop to wrongdoing, or of being stunned to learn that a bishop had quietly reassigned a priest accused of molesting a child to another parish.
David Clohessy, an abuse victim and an organizer of the largest nationwide support group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said yesterday, "If the pope would clearly, publicly and severely discipline even a handful of complicit bishops, bishops who knew or suspected abuse and ignored it or concealed it, that's the easiest and most effective step."
Clohessy acknowledged that victims might sound bitter and thankless just when the pope himself is finally taking their side.
He began to cry, as he said: "We're not interested in punishment for punishment's sake. We're interested in consequences, because that deters more recklessness, secrecy and deceit."
Pontiff visits the United Nations
Pope Benedict XVI flew to New York yesterday morning after wrapping up three days of meetings, Masses and speeches in Washington, where the recurring theme was the church crisis brought on by pedophile priests.
A visit to the United Nations was the original purpose of the papal visit, however. Addressing a special session of the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, the pope sounded the theme for which he is known: concern for human rights.
He extolled the virtues of diplomacy and not "the decisions of a few" for resolving conflicts and said human rights for "all times and all peoples" had to be based on unchanging justice and not legal whims. He called the U.N.'s work vital but questioned how power was concentrated in just a handful of nations.
Los Angeles Times
POPE BENEDICT'S SCHEDULE
Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York
Meeting with youth and candidates for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary
Visit to Ground Zero
Mass at Yankee Stadium