A special meeting of the Association of Chicago Priests has been called for March 22 to determine what can be done to convince the Vatican that the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago needs a change of leadership at the top.

For nearly a year, leaders of the 572-member priests organization, shunning newspaper publicity, have been engaged in quiet diplomacy designed to make Vatican leaders aware that Cardinal John Cody has outraged significant numbers of Catholics through the "arbitrary exercise of (his) authority."

In a letter to ACP members, the organization's board announced the March 22 strategy session and the contents of a letter responding to its complaints from Cardinal John Wright, head of the Vatican's sacred congregation for the clergy.

A copy of the letter was made available to the Chicago Sun-Times by a private source.

Signed by the Rev. Joseph O'Brien, ACP chairman, the March 6 letter describes the board's step-by-step diplomacy with Archbishop Jean Jadot, the Vatican's apostolic delegate to the United States, and Cardinal Wright, the American prelate who is expected to leave his Vatican post in the near future.

In the letter to Cardinal Wright, the Chicago priests declared, "The Church in Chicago is seriously troubled. We sensed in ourselves and in many priests an outrage that cries out for expression. The source of our outrage is the arbitrary exercise of authority of the cardinal archbishop of Chicago. This has resulted in an erosion of legitimate authority and the alienation of many from the church."

Specifically, the priests accused the cardinal of not answering letters, closing schools without consultation, and "ignoring the processes of consultation in most decisions." Such actions, they wrote, reflect "an underlying disregard for the human dignity of priests and people."

The negotiating process was delayed for a long time by the deaths of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Late in January, however, Cardinal Wright declared that his office would "deal directly" only through official groups like the Chicago Priests Senate.

In its March 6 letter, the ACP board told its members that it regards Cardinal Wright's response "inadequate." In a letter to Archbishop Hadot, O'Brien complained that "to have our letter peremptorily dismissed on a dubious legal technicality is insufferable. Every Catholic has the right to appeal directly to the holy see."