THE crisis over sex abuse by priests in the Catholic church in America took a startling new turn yesterday when a document emerged proving that the Pope had personally ordered that a defrocked priest convicted of paedophilia should move to a new area where his behaviour was unknown - unless his continued presence in the parish where the abuse took place caused "no scandal".
Joseph Gallagher, co-founder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, said the document, one of thousands from the Boston Archdiocese, made public by court order last week, was the "smoking gun" that proved a hitherto secret Vatican policy of keeping its problem with abusive priests under wraps.
Gallagher commented: "This would explain why [other] bishops have done the same thing as [Boston's] Cardinal Law - they've moved sex offenders from parish to parish without notifiying parishioners."
Today or tomorrow the man at the centre of the scandal, Cardinal Bernard Law, will have lunch with Pope John Paul II inside the Vatican. And in a move which is regarded as indicating that he is increasingly inclined to resign, the Cardinal last night resigned as chairman of the board of trustees of the Catholic University of America.
The Pope's order of 1999, in which he wrote that the defrocked priest "ought to live away from the places where his previous condition is known" unless his continued presence causes "no scandal", may be one item on a crowded agenda that will carry the two men through coffee and beyond.
Other topics they will have to mull over include the letter delivered to the Cardinal's Boston address on Tuesday, signed by 58 priests in the archdiocese, calling for his resignation.
"This is a necessary step," they wrote, " ... if healing is to come to the archdiocese. The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader."
Yesterday 12 more priests joined the swelling chorus.
Then there is the offer made by Cardinal Law to declare protective bankruptcy to fend off 400 victims of priestly sexual abuse now preparing to deluge the church with law suits, with claims expected to exceed $100m.
Already the archdiocese has handed over more than $10m in compensation to victims of abuse by priests.
But giving over church assets to the control of a civil judge, which the protective bankruptcy procedure entails, would be unprecedented.
"The church has fought to protect its independence for centuries," commented one Vatican watcher. "Handing it over to a judge would go totally against the grain."
Cardinal Law slipped into Rome at the weekend and his presence in the Vatican might have remained a secret all week had he not had the misfortune to find himself, while dining in one of Rome's best restaurants, sitting at a table next to a hawk-eyed American reporter on the Vatican beat.
But despite the tumult in Boston, the Holy See has retained its usual inscrutable, immemorial reserve. Cardinal Law has probably met with the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, and the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a "very intelligent, pragmatic, ruthless operator," according to one who has dealt with him, "who knows how to get things done and lives in the real world." They almost certainly discussed whether or not Cardinal Law should go.
His first offer to resign, last April, was rejected.
But the decision over Cardinal Law's future is exclusively in the hands of the Pope, the only person who can accept the resignation of a cardinal, and how he will decide the matter no-one is willing to predict.
"The calls by 58 priests for Law's resignation will have got the Pope's attention," said one church analyst, "but as the Pope sees it, letting a cardinal resign is the easy option.
"The life of a retired cardinal is a pretty sweet one. The Pope would much prefer to leave him in place to clear up the mess."
After all, the Pope himself has faced several calls to resign, for reasons of age and ill-health. Once when a Cardinal proposed it, the Pope replied: "Jesus did not come down from the cross."
(Independent News Service and agencies)