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Sex Abuse Crisis

Vatican defends church’s handling of sexual abuse accusations


For the first time since the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. church began, Pope John Paul II and senior aides have spoken about the problem, saying they are “profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers,” while insisting that most priests are innocent and suggesting that American outrage may be exaggerated.

While Vatican officials say the problem is largely one for American bishops to solve, the crisis has renewed debate about one possible policy move at the level of the universal church -- banning, or at least strongly discouraging, the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

The lone papal comment to date came at the end of John Paul’s annual Holy Thursday letter to priests of the world, released March 21, and dedicated largely to the sacrament of reconciliation. The language was indirect, but the reference to the situation in the United States seemed clear.

“As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium inquitatis [mystery of evil] at work in the world,” the pope wrote.

“Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice.

“As the church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us … are called to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness.”

The document was presented at a Vatican news conference by Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy, the Vatican office that supervises priests. Castrillón seemed defensive and occasionally angry. He cited canon law to argue that no other global institution has the kind of internal legal prohibitions against sexual abuse of minors by its officials as does the Catholic church.

At the news conference, Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls solicited a series of questions from reporters for Castrillón. They included whether or not the Vatican supports a “zero tolerance” policy for priests accused of pedophilia, whether the Vatican still has confidence in Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, and why the pope didn’t mention the sex abuse crisis by name. Most came from American media and were offered in English.

“The language used is interesting,” Castrillón said as Navarro-Valls turned the floor over to him. “This by itself is an x-ray of the problem.”

Castrillón then read a prepared statement and refused to answer the specific questions that Navarro had solicited.

“There is no accurate comparative statistic regarding other professions, [such as] doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, coaches, journalists, politicians or other common categories, including parents and relatives,” Castrillón said, suggesting that the focus on priest abusers may be unfair. He cited a study by Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University that concluded that 3 percent of American priests have a “tendency to the abuse of minors” and 0.3 percent are pedophiles.

In a telephone interview, Jenkins told NCR that the numbers cited by Castrillón come from a 1992 study in the Chicago archdiocese. The numbers were presented in a 1996 book, Pedophiles and Priests.

“The church has never ignored the problem of sexual abuse, above all among its sacred ministers, even before it was on the front pages,” Castrillón said.

Castrillón then described a new set of Vatican norms issued in April that give responsibility to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for cases involving sexual abuse of minors by priests. The norms mandate a canonical process before disciplinary measures can be enforced. The idea is to ensure that an accused priest has the right to self-defense (NCR, Dec. 14, 2001).

Castrillón defended the church’s tradition of handling disciplinary matters internally, which he said dates to the apostolic period. This does not mean that the church seeks to “exempt itself from the civil law in different countries,” he said, except when it comes to the seal of the confessional, and to “secrecy linked to the exercise of the episcopal ministry and to the common pastoral good.”

Off the record, Vatican officials tell NCR that the pope is following the American situation closely, and is appalled by the revelations. At the same time, even granting the unprecedented scale of the disclosures, they insist that most priests have not done anything wrong.

Moreover, Vatican officials say, it will take time to sort out how many of the present allegations turn out to be true. In part, officials suspect, the push to resurrect charges and to report them aggressively in the press may be influenced by hostility to the strong positions of the Catholic church on issues such as abortion, birth control and sexual ethics.

“Bernard Law has always been a leader of the pro-life movement,” one senior prelate told NCR March 19. “Some people enjoy the fact that his problems in Boston will weaken that role.”

In part, officials say, the present clamor is also fueled by financial motives, since several dioceses have made large cash payouts to settle sex abuse charges.

“There is a well-founded suspicion that some of these charges, that arise well after the fact, serve only for making money in civil litigation,” said Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an interview published March 22 by the Italian journal 30 Giorni.

In a separate interview with CNN, Bertone called it a “strange fact” that in the United States the church is forced under civil law to pay for the misdeeds of “single individuals.”

“This ordinarily doesn’t happen, and shouldn’t happen,” Bertone said.

In response to the push for mandatory reporting policies, which would require bishops to inform police of any credible allegation of sexual abuse against a priest, the Vatican has expressed caution. In the 30 Giorni interview, Bertone argued that a priest should be able to confide in his bishop without fear of legal consequences.

“Civil society has the obligation to defend its own citizens,” Bertone said. “But it must also respect the ‘professional secrecy’ of priests … If a priest cannot confide in his bishop because he is afraid of being denounced … it would be mean that there is no more freedom of conscience.”

Four other points came through in conversations with Vatican officials in mid-March. The first was a message of solidarity with the American bishops, coupled with the expectation that the bishops will move aggressively to respond to the problem.

Second, despite calls from some quarters for a re-examination of mandatory priestly celibacy, Vatican spokespersons have said the issue is not on the table.

“The pope has spoken to this. He has said celibacy remains. It is a great gift to the church,” said Fr. Ciro Bendettini, the vice director of the Vatican press office.

Third, there is fear among some in the Vatican that the present climate in the United States may lead to a “witch hunt” in which innocent priests are tarnished by false, or at least unprovable, allegations. While Vatican officials say priests who abuse minors should obviously have no further contact with children, they are leery of quasi-automatic policies of “zero tolerance” that impose punishment before guilt is established.

Fourth, several Vatican officials underscore that in many cases, the sexual abuse at issue is not pedophilia, but relations between priests and adolescent males. This same-sex aspect of the crisis has renewed conversation in the Vatican about policies concerning the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood.

For the last several years, the Congregation for Catholic Education has been preparing a document concerning seminaries, focusing in part on the use of psychological testing in screening candidates. At one stage in the drafting of the document, language was considered barring gays from admission to seminaries.

In the wake of negative reaction from bishops, that language was set aside. In recent weeks, however, the idea is drawing new interest.

Vatican officials point out that there is already a document from 1961, governing members of religious communities, which recommends not admitting anyone to sacred vows who has “perverse inclinations to homosexuality or pederasty.” A 1990 document for religious, however, nuances that recommendation, suggesting that candidates who cannot “master” their homosexual tendencies should not be admitted. Thus for the 1961 document it is the orientation that is disqualifying, while the 1990 text suggests the problem is sexual behavior.

John Paul’s March 21 letter is not his first comment on sexual abuse by priests. In June 1993, amid another wave of disclosures in the United States, the pope sent a four-page letter to American bishops in which he referred to “shocked moral sensibilities.” Later that year, in August, before a crowd of 18,000 in Denver’s McNichols arena, the pope condemned the “suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar.”

In an address to the Roman curia in December 1993, John Paul said, “Among those that are particularly painful are sexual [deviations] which sometimes have involved, I say it crying, members of the clergy.”

Most recently, in the November 2001 document Ecclesia in Oceania, John Paul wrote that “sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002