The extraordinary summit of U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials on clergy sex abuse will likely focus on speeding up the removal of errant priests, a leader among American bishops said Tuesday.
Also on the table at next week's meeting: the merits of implementing a binding national policy that could standardize how U.S. bishops handle charges of molestation against Roman Catholic clergy.
"The commitment to protecting the safety of children and vulnerable people and the commitment of all of us -- bishops and clergy -- to lives of integrity is not going to end," said Bishop Joseph Galante, coadjutor of Dallas and member of a panel overseeing the U.S. bishops' response to the sex abuse scandal.
Observers cautioned against high expectations for the Rome gathering.
The church is known for its deliberate style, and the meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday should be seen as one step in a long struggle to restore trust in the church, they said.
Still, the Vatican has never before moved as swiftly to convene a meeting of cardinals. The pope called all American archbishops to Rome in 1989 to discuss divorce among Catholics and other issues, but that gathering was planned long in advance.
"It seems to indicate that there was some concern not just to protect the church from scandal, but for the bishops to be true pastors and shepherds of their flock," said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian and academic editor of the Paulist Press.
"It seems to indicate that the pope is exercising his role as the good shepherd and not simply the CEO."
Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus, saw the pope's summons of the 13 U.S. cardinals as a show of solidarity with the American church and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Law's archdiocese has been the epicenter of the raging scandal.
Boston cardinal in Rome
Law, meanwhile, disclosed Tuesday that he has been in Rome the past few days and met with the pope and other Vatican officials. In a statement, Law said he raised the possibility of resigning and came away encouraged.
"As a result of my stay in Rome, I return home encouraged in my efforts to provide the strongest possible leadership in ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that no child is ever abused again by a priest of this Archdiocese," he said.
The cardinal acknowledged in January that he failed to remove a pedophile priest now accused of molesting more than 130 people. He has refused to step down in the face of intense pressure.
"I think the pope wants it to be known that he backs Cardinal Law and he wants it also to be known that the cardinal's colleagues in the American hierarchy do as well," Shaw said.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops conference, said Vatican officials would be listening to the cardinals' ideas next week, not issuing orders.
Among the participants in the Rome meeting will be three cardinals heading the Vatican offices on clergy, bishops and doctrinal orthodoxy. The doctrinal office is led by the powerful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a confidant of the pope.
Maniscalco and Galante said the U.S. delegation hopes to convince the Holy See to change church law and allow them to remove pedophiles from the priesthood without cumbersome appeals to Rome. Now, bishops can only temporarily suspend priests.
The Rome summit will also help the cardinals develop a blueprint for a June meeting of U.S. bishops, who will vote on a response to the crisis.
In 1992, the conference developed guidelines on responding to abuse claims, but each diocese is autonomous and compliance is voluntary. The bishops need Vatican approval to implement a binding policy. Maniscalco said a national protocol that does not require ratification by Rome could also be adopted in June.
"They really need an indication from the Vatican as to whether any of the proposals would get a green light," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America. "It would be a disaster if they proposed something in June and the Vatican rejected it."
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, who will attend the Vatican meeting, said Tuesday he will encourage the American church leaders to support a binding policy for all U.S. dioceses.
"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.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., was in Rome last week and discussed the abuse crisis with Pope John Paul II. McCarrick said the pontiff expressed concern for the victims, church members and the future of the priesthood.
Some critics have said the pope and the Vatican have been slow to respond to a scandal with global implications. McCarrick said he hopes the U.S. delegation can "assure the Holy Father we are striving for holiness."
In other developments Tuesday related to the clergy abuse scandal:
-- The pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Franziskus Eisenbach, an auxiliary bishop in Mainz, Germany, who had been accused of sexually abusing and injury during an exorcism. Prosecutors said a year ago there wasn't enough evidence to pursue the case. The Vatican said it had urged Eisenbach to step down "for the good of the church" but that his resignation was not an admission of guilt.