(Rome) It is almost impossible to know what really goes on behind the scenes at a place as secretive as the Vatican.
Running the worldwide Roman Catholic Church with its more than one billion members is obviously an enormous undertaking and the important decisions are made by a few powerful clerics headed, of course, by Pope John Paul II.
But the Pontiff is 83 years old and not in good health. For Americans concerned about the declining image of the Church in this country, the question of the Pope's competency is crucial.
With that in mind, I recently traveled to Vatican City and sat in the third row at John Paul's weekly audience.
I watched him closely for 90 minutes and can tell you that although he can no longer walk, he was mentally alert. His eyes were clear and his voice retained some power.
But it was clear that the Pope's endurance is limited.
Few ever get to question the Pope and I have just one query for him: Why, Your Holiness, have you not acted more aggressively in combating the priest-sexual abuse scandal in America, a country that provides about half of your financing?
Although the Pope is beyond my reach, I was able to put that question to a number of Vatican insiders and have come up with what I believe is a cogent answer.
Pope John Paul II was furious when told that the scandals in the Boston Archdiocese had reached a flashpoint.
According to someone in the room with him when he received the news that Cardinal Law was to be deposed, he slammed his hand on his desk and yelled to his assistants: "You told me this situation would be taken care of the right way!"
The Pope was visibly angry and, shortly afterward, retreated into prayer.
And that is what the Pope mostly does these days: Pray.
He delegates almost all other duties to a variety of underlings, none of whom have the power or the insight to deal with a scandal as withering as this priest-sex abuse thing.
According to four sources who often deal with the Vatican, the bureaucracy at St. Peter's is so thick and entrenched that quick action on anything is impossible.
With the person in charge, John Paul, spending most of his time on spiritual reflection, there is simply no one in the Vatican hierarchy in place to help the tottering American Church.
This is tragic because for two centuries the Catholic Church in the USA has been a powerful moral voice.
It champions the poor, promotes respect for life, and generally acts as counterweight to the secular philosophy that challenges any judgments about personal behavior.
In America today there is an increasing tolerance for all kinds of actions that the country once deemed "immoral." For example, heroin dealing is now considered a "non-violent crime" by some.
Partial-birth abortion is embraced by a variety of groups including the National Organization for Women.
Drug legalizers have hired lobbyists in Washington as have homosexuals who want gay marriage to become sanctioned by the states.
Nearly anything goes in a secular society and a quick trip to Europe will prove that.
Show up in Amsterdam, Holland and you can see entire neighborhoods devoted to legalized prostitution and drug buying.
You can watch drug addicts shoot up and smoke hash in the train station. Great for the kids, right?
The Catholic Church at one time could authoritatively speak out against that kind of degeneracy.
The Church believes that your body is to be respected along with the bodies and souls of your neighbors. Anything that diminishes the human (or fetal) condition is questioned and sometimes condemned.
But that moral authority is now diminished.
Thanks to a few corrupt Catholic clergy and a paralyzed leadership in Rome, a reasonable, collective voice that promotes humanistic conduct has been put on the defensive and, in certain quarters, is even dismissed as irrelevant.
I believe Pope John Paul II is a good man; a person of dignity and compassion. But he has lost control of a situation that is causing societal damage far beyond the confines of the Catholic Church.
We should all dearly hope that the Pope's prayers are answered.
For the American Catholic Church right now, the only solution on the horizon is divine intervention.