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Mary McGrory

Late and Lacking

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, April 18, 2002; Page A21

The pope in Rome and the president of the United States are in the same boat. They are both coping with the consequences of a failure to recognize a crisis.

For John Paul II, it was the pedophile scandal, which enraged the faithful in an unparallelled way. The Holy Father, who rightly expects a place in history as the liberator of Poland, was apparently preoccupied with cosmic diplomacy and missed the significance of crimes committed by a clergy that was protected, promoted and even pampered by the hierarchy. He made the mistake of thinking that Catholics care more about their church than their children. Now His Holiness has called 11 U.S. cardinals to an emergency session at St. Peter's.

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In a similar way, George W. Bush turned a blind eye to trouble that only he could solve. He sees himself not as a peacemaker but as a warrior against terrorism. For the first 15 months of his term, he refused to lend his prestige or even his attention to the ugly developments in Israel and the West Bank. The Middle East, to his way of thinking, was a hobby of Bill Clinton's, which was reason enough to bypass it. Besides, it chewed up intervenors; both sides were bent on extermination and were best left to their own devices.

But the moment inevitably arrived when nothing but the might of the United States could halt the carnage -- on one side, suicide-bombers shattering Passover, on the other, bulldozers bringing houses down on blameless inhabitants. At length, Bush sent Colin Powell to the scene and ordered Ariel Sharon to stop the invasion. Sharon thumbed his nose at the leader of the Free World. Israeli soldiers are still shooting at faces in the windows on the West Bank, and Manger Square bristles with tanks. Powell returns empty-handed. Sharon ignored Bush's demand.

The pope's crisis summit seems equally doomed. If the pope were as concerned about the sexual abuse of children in rectories and seminaries as his calling of the conference is meant to suggest, why is Bernard Law, the author of the major coverup, still in office?

Law enjoys the special favor of the pope. He is doctrinaire and inflexible, and he treated the uproar over pedophile priests precisely as the pope did; that is, he ignored it as long as he could. When the Boston Globe started to publish the bad news, the Supreme Pontiff finally spoke. In an Easter letter to the clergy, he suggested it was just a few bad apples and devoted his sympathy to the good priests who were smeared by the scandal. Adding to Catholic outrage, Cardinal Law wrote a preposterous letter to the priests in his diocese in which he presented himself as "determined to provide the strongest leadership possible in this area." In other words, the murderer will solve the homicide.

Boston, usually a docile and deferential archdiocese, talks of indicting His Eminence. Some of the pious are withholding their money from the collection plate. Big givers have folded their checkbooks. Students at Catholic colleges have petitioned the authorities to disinvite Law from their commencements.

Yet Law traveled secretly to Rome for a parley with the pope, who, he says, "encouraged" him in his efforts to "provide the strongest possible leadership" in the cleanup. Members of the U.S. bishops' conference recently convinced the pope of the gravity of the situation, but not of Law's radioactivity.

Meanwhile, Bush partisans have found a way out of the embarrassment attendant on being dissed by the head of a thoroughly beholden ally. They pretend that Bush never demanded Sharon's withdrawal; they have diluted the macho "demand" to the wimpy "request" and lamely cite the bulldozers' retreat from some areas. The talk is of "solidarity"; the spin is that Bush made a slight faux pas on a bad day.

A telling moment at the huge pro-Israel rally held on Capitol Hill on Monday came with the appearance of Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, who was there as the special representative of the president. He mentioned statehood for Palestine and was roundly booed. The idea of one of Washington's most ferocious hawks, a zealot for the invasion of Iraq, as a martyred peacenik was a light moment in a heavy week.

Bush, standing in the rubble of his Mideast coalition, may feel that he was vindicated in his initial refusal to go near the witches' brew. Or maybe the experience will deter him, at least for a while, from blasting into Baghdad.

Now if he wants a cease-fire, he must play hardball and threaten a curtailment of the $2 billion plus we pay to subsidize Israel. The pope, if he wishes to retrieve moral authority from the scorched earth left by the scandal, must relieve Law of his red hat. These are hard choices. But they are the only kind available to world leaders who refused to lead in clear and present crises.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company