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Swept under the Vatican rug

The pope is infallible, but that does not mean he is always right.

The Holy Father released a letter with brief remarks about the plague of perversity ravaging the Catholic Church.

But he did not write the letter or read it aloud, and its main topic was penance. Apparently, the Vatican thinks penance is for other people.

The few sentences about the pedophilia scandal were more sympathetic to the put-upon priests than the mauled victims. Pope John Paul II has never addressed all those Catholics whose lives have been badly wounded. The wound he cares about most is the wound to the church.

Conceding that there are some bad apples is wholly inadequate. Catholics' anger stems not just from priests' preying on children, but from decades of coverups by higher-ups and the lack of an aggressive response by church leaders.

The pope cited "our brothers" who had succumbed to "mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil)." Calling it the mystery of evil vaporizes the problem. There's nothing very mysterious about pedophilia. It's a crime.

By couching the seaminess in celestial language, the pope simply reinforces the huge institutional conceit that led to the great Catholic coverup: the sense that the army-like hierarchical structure will hunker down and never speak honestly about its failings.

The Vatican's reaction is priests don't abuse boys. Americans do. The Vatican has shrugged off the international spate of sex abuse cases and acted as if this is another overhyped American tabloid sex scandal.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a top contender to succeed the pope, sniffed and said, "It's already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions were in English." To put off reporters, he loftily proclaimed, "The pope is worried over peace in the world." But that only made the pope sound as trite and irrelevant as a Miss America contestant.

"Concerning the problem of sexual abuse and cases of pedophilia, I have only one answer," the cardinal said. "In today's culture of pansexualism and libertinism created in this world, several priests, being of this culture, have committed the most serious crime of sexual abuse." That remark reflects such ignorance, it's scary. Pedophilia is not the byproduct of a "libertine" culture. Nearly all Americans who live in this same culture do not put their hands on boys.

The New York Times' Melinda Henneberger pressed a Vatican official about why the pope could not offer anguished American Catholics more moral guidance. He replied, "With all that is going on in the world, I'm just not sure it would be convenient for him to choose to speak on this."

The Vatican's cavalier attitude will only intensify the collision between the open, modernizing spirit of America and the deeply antidemocratic spirit of the church.

And American boomers, who see the Vatican's precepts on sex and virtue as frozen and antiquated, have become "cafeteria Catholics," selecting dishes from the Vatican prix fixe menu and circumnavigating bans on premarital sex, birth control and divorce.

Back in the 12th century, celibacy may have provided priests some extra mystique. Wrapped in purity and secrecy, they became, as one priest puts it, "sacramental studs." But now we have a perp walk of sacramental perverts. It is glaringly clear that mandatory celibacy draws a disproportionate number of men fleeing confusion about their sexuality.

In a weird way, celibacy italicizes sex and installs an obsession with sex at the very heart of the identity of the priesthood. The one place the church needs to go to save itself _ shedding its dysfunctional all-male, all-celibate, all-closed culture _ is the one place it's unwilling to go.

Three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers will not be enough.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service