THE FIRST story about a paedophile priest in the United States broke as long ago as 1983. It was written in the country's leading independent Roman Catholic newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter. No one in the church hierarchy took much notice.
Nor did the leaders react in 1985 when the paper disclosed that the Church was being forced to stump up millions of dollars in secret payouts to families whose sons had been molested by Catholic priests. Silence was bought with confidentiality clauses. Church heads, the paper's editorial complained, were developing no national policy to protect children from predator priests or restore trust in the clergy.
Nor did the authorities respond through the 1990s as victims' groups began organising and the paper continued to write regularly on the subject. By 1997 it was complaining that bishops' response was driven by legal and financial imperatives rather than by concern for the victims.
Always it was ignored. Bishops continued settling cases out of court and giving priests moral counselling before moving them on to new jobs and new victims. Only now - 19 years after the alarm was first raised - has the scandal become such a burning public issue that the Pope has been forced to intervene personally, summoning all American cardinals and top bishops to Rome.
For three days from next Tuesday they will meet in the Vatican to try to find a way out of the turmoil that has engulfed the US Church. As many as 3,000 of the nation's 40,000 priests, according to some reports, now face allegations of interfering with children. Hundreds have been removed from their posts. Secular prosecutors have begun asking dioceses for their records of past allegations. Police authorities have set up investigative units.
Hundreds of individuals are coming forward with new claims that they had been abused by priests when they were children. And the archbishops of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, and of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan - who hold the two most important posts in the US Catholic Church - are being urged to resign for covering up the abuse.
So what has changed to turn a scandal swept under the carpet into a national controversy? Two things, according to Tom Fox, editor of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) from 1980 to 1997. First a powerful newspaper, The Boston Globe, took up the story in January. Second, it uncovered official church documents that had been put before the courts in one case. "It's like the Nixon tapes," Mr Fox said. "Anyone can see from the documents the course was not pastoral. It was defensive and legalistic."
Among other things, court documents have revealed that Cardinal Egan did not report allegations of clergy sex abuse even though a 1971 law required him to do so. Perhaps more damning are 880 pages of church files that disclose Cardinal Law had been protecting and even promoting priests linked to child abuse throughout his 18 years in Boston. In one case, warnings about a priest had been given as long ago as 1977. The evidence that cover-up was official policy within the Church was now unequivocal.
In the early years, the hierarchy's supporters have previously said, few people understood the true nature of paedophilia. It was thought to be a moral failure rather than a sexual pathology that may not be curable. Bishops thought that expressions of contrition followed by spiritual rehabilitation were sufficient.
The extent of the warnings revealed by the documents has undermined the credibility of that excuse. The issue has become not one of sexual deviancy but the abuse of power. And ironically the bishops' anxiety to protect the Church's image from scandal - and its financial, legal and moral costs - is now threatening to damage the very things they sought to safeguard.
The talk is now of possible bankruptcy of sections of the Church, which is the largest non-government organisation in America. …