VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II discussed the US sex-abuse scandal with a group of American bishops yesterday, encouraging them to be more open to the needs of parishioners in the wake of a "crisis of confidence in the church's leadership."
The pontiff spoke with church officials from Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- including Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, and Archbishop John Myers of Newark -- at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, as part of the US prelates' regularly scheduled meetings here.
John Paul noted that Roman Catholic bishops have "an unequivocal right and duty of governance." But he indicated that the approach of some American church leaders might have inadvertently driven a wedge between them and churchgoers.
Dozens of reports have emerged of abusive priests who had been moved from parish to parish rather than being punished. Victims' rights groups accused the church hierarchy of favoring the protection of priests over their victims, and many faithful were infuriated by the response of Catholic leaders.
"In our meetings, many of you have expressed your concern about the crisis of confidence in the church's leadership provoked by the recent sexual abuse scandals, the general call for accountability in the church's governance on every level, and the relations between bishops, clergy, and the lay faithful," the pope told his visitors.
John Paul said, however, that he was convinced the church would achieve "self-renewal."
"In the present circumstances of the church in America, this will entail a spiritual discernment and critique of certain styles of governance which, even in the name of a legitimate concern for good 'administration' and responsible oversight, can run the risk of distancing the pastor from the members of his flock, and obscuring his image as their father and brother in Christ."
The pontiff made clear that the authority of bishops was not in question, but that they needed to include the faithful more.
He said "a commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular 'democratic' model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority."
After meeting with the pope, Myers said Vatican officials argued that the wake of the sex-abuse scandal could actually provide a chance for renewal.
"We have been told that it's a moment of purification and of opportunity, that if we use the opportunity we can help reinvigorate the American church," he said.