NEWSWEEK has learned that some Roman Catholic bishops think the sexual-abuse crisis is so severe that they want to convene a plenary council of the American church--something that hasn't happened since 1884. Eight bishops are circulating a five-page letter arguing that only a council can achieve the necessary "moral and ecclesiastical" reform of the church's priests and bishops. Selected theologians and representatives of the laity would be included as nonvoting members.
Unlike the Dallas meeting, a plenary council has binding legislative power. But there are risks. As the letter frankly concedes, holding a council would be lengthy and costly. It probably could not begin until 2004. The proponents, who include the archbishops of Portland, Ore., Kansas City, Mo., and Mobile, Ala., worry that the proceedings could be hampered by pressure from outside "experts and pundits." And if there is "no effective result, the Church is worse off." The letter includes a petition to the Vatican for the right to hold a council. A decision by the bishops is expected at their next national meeting in November.