VATICAN CITY (AP) -- As they crafted a sex abuse policy for disciplining errant priests, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops may have been hampered by an unseen handicap: They were too American.
The Vatican refused last week to put its stamp of approval on the U.S. plan. It declared the provisions confusing, ambiguous, "difficult to reconcile" with church law and left open procedural questions that needed to be resolved.
Officials at the Holy See were concerned about what Pope John Paul II himself called "summary trials," a prolonged statute of limitations, the use of civilian review boards and the possibility that innocent priests would be sacrificed by zealous bishops anxious to placate an angry public.
Beneath the surface, the Vatican's response begged some broader questions. Namely, whether American democracy and legal traditions are in conflict with the Vatican's insistence on the authority of its bishops and its laws for the worldwide church -- what some see as a clash of cultures.
Three months before the American bishops adopted their sweeping policy at a June meeting in Dallas, the Vatican was sending out warning signs.
A top Vatican cardinal, one of a group of prelates who would eventually examine the policy, wondered out loud if the scandal rocking the U.S. church had some particular American aspect to it.
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy, told a Vatican news conference he found it interesting that many of the journalists' questions were in English -- a fact, he said, that "already says something about the problem and gives it an outline."
The problem of sexual abuse had developed in a culture of "pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the workings of the Vatican, said that how the two societies view law and legislating is an area where the culture clash is particularly pronounced.
"Rome prefers laws be permanent and unchanging, while in the U.S., we change laws all the time," Reese said. "So we would have no problem with enacting a law and then amending it later, based on experience, if it is not perfect."
The fate of the U.S. policy is still up in the air: A joint American-Vatican commission, including Castrillon Hoyos, is charged with working out problems with the plan.
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