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Church in Crisis

Cardinals promise tough policy on abuse


At the close of a hastily organized, dramatic summit on the sex abuse crisis, American cardinals and virtually the entire Vatican brain trust seem to have decided on a “get tough” approach. The idea applies not only to abuser priests, but to homosexuality in the priesthood and doctrinal dissent in the church.

The U.S. bishops also publicly acknowledged, for the first time since the crisis broke, their failure to act as good managers. In a brief letter to American priests, the bishops wrote: “We regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal.”

The April 23 and 24 summit produced two documents: a brief letter from the American bishops to U.S. priests, and a “final communiqué” outlining areas of agreement.

All 13 American cardinals took part, along with Bishops Wilton Gregory and Richard Skylstad, the president and vice-president of the American bishops’ conference. Also in the room was Msgr. William Fay, the executive secretary for the American bishops.

On the Vatican side, eight top officials took part, including all the heavy-hitters: Cardinals Angelo Sodano, secretary of state; Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office; Giovannia Battisat Re, who runs the office for bishops; and Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the Vatican’s top official for clergy.

The pope convened the opening meeting, but did not directly participate in the working sessions.

In the end, the summit did not result in a comprehensive new approach to the sex abuse issue. It did, however, offer some “big picture” guidance for the American bishops ahead of their June meeting in Dallas, where they are expected to wrestle significantly with the sex abuse issue.

Most important, the discussions may have forestalled the possibility that Rome might veto whatever the Americans adopt in June, although the summit’s final document included a pledge from the American bishops to submit their new policies to Rome for formal approval.

Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick described the consensus in five points:

  • Take care of victims first, offering whatever assistance is required.
  • A priest credibly accused of abuse should be immediately removed from ministry.
  • Civil authorities should be informed.
  • The priest should be sent to a therapist for treatment.
  • Each diocese should have a review board, composed mostly of laypeople such as physicians and the victims of sexual abuse or their parents, to participate in the handling of these cases.

John Paul II set the “get tough” tone in an opening address. “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” he said.

The pope also said that society rightly considers sexual abuse a crime, a signal that the Vatican is moving away from seeing clergy sex abuse largely as a spiritual problem to be handled inside the church.

McCarrick told reporters April 24 that the pope’s comments struck him as a clear papal endorsement of a “zero tolerance” policy.

At the same time, however, the pope also urged the bishops not to forget “the power of Christian conversion,” seeming to leave open the door to a more flexible policy with offender priests.

It was an ambiguity that ran through the discussions.

In the end, the bishops left Rome still divided on the question of whether a “zero tolerance” policy should apply to all cases, present and past, and whether it should apply to all forms of sexual abuse, or be restricted to the most heinous acts of pedophilia.

Skylstad told NCR in an April 24 interview that the summit’s strong preference was for a “one strike and you’re out approach,” but the details will have to be spelled out when the U.S. bishops meet in Dallas in June.

The summit’s concluding document also called for a speedier process to defrock a “notorious” priest, meaning a serial pedophile -- someone who abuses a number of young children -- and for a “special process” for priests who are judged by a bishop to present a real threat to young people.

The result seemed to lean toward the American position in a long-standing dispute between many U.S. bishops and the Vatican.

American prelates have long complained that the defrocking process outlined in canon law is long and cumbersome, and that while a priest pursues appeals the bishop is obliged to provide financial support. The Vatican, on the other hand, has traditionally insisted on sticking to canon law as the best guarantee of an accused priest’s due process rights.

Perhaps the most surprising language in the concluding document, however, was its call for extra vigilance from bishops on doctrinal dissent.

“The pastors of the church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the church,” the statement said, “and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care.”

In this sense, the summit appeared to ratify what has been a core element of the conservative analysis of the sex abuse crisis, that it reflects confusion and ambiguity in the church on sexual morality.

Another nod to the conservative view came in a recommendation for an “apostolic visitation” -- meaning a Vatican investigation -- of American seminaries, with particular attention to “the need for fidelity to the church’s teaching” and “the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.”

Though the language is indirect, observers took this point as an oblique way of calling for a much tougher policy concerning the admission of homosexuals to seminary study.

Gregory lent weight to this perception during an April 23 press briefing, acknowledging the existence of a “homosexual atmosphere or dynamic” in some seminaries that causes heterosexuals to “think twice” before entering.

Gregory called for “an ongoing struggle to be sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.”

Conservative Catholic commentators, noting that many of the instances of sexual abuse that have come to light in recent months involve priests and adolescent boys, have argued that tolerance of a “homosexual subculture” in the priesthood was partly to blame. Here again, the summit endorsed that view.

The usual liberal critique, which links the sexual abuse crisis with issues such as mandatory celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood, cuts far less ice behind the summit’s closed doors. Participants told reporters these themes were largely ignored.

Also off the table was the question of Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation. Law apparently offered an opening apology to his brother bishops, acknowledging that if it were not for his mistakes they might not find themselves at such a summit. After that, however, participants said no one raised the issue.

On April 22, the day before the summit opened, the Los Angeles Times quoted an unnamed cardinal to the effect that some Americans intended to make the case for Law’s removal to the pope.

Once the story broke, however, one cardinal after another denied being its source, and in the end McCarrick called the account “made out of whole cloth.”

If Law survived, however, he was not visibly strengthened. He was an invisible man outside the proceedings, not appearing at press briefings or public events, and refusing to make himself available to the media, despite the vast concentration of Boston-area TV, radio and print journalists on hand.

Though neither document mentioned an expanded role for laypeople in reviewing and implementing policies on sexual abuse, McCarrick said in response to an NCR question, that this was an editing oversight.

Stafford said there were “constant references” inside the summit to the need to bring laity into the process, “both from the curia and from the U.S.”

Media interest from the United States was intense, with one portion of a large piazza in front of St. Peter’s Square cordoned off for all the satellite trucks dispatched by American networks. CNN flew in two of its top guns, Connie Chung and Jonathan Mann, to cover the event.

The media circus elicited puzzled responses from many Italians, who have not responded to the sexual abuse story with anything approaching the same zeal. Many Italian papers covered the summit more as an American media story than for the substance of the meeting.

John Paul II called the Americans to Rome on Tuesday, April 16, leaving a scant five days to organize the event. This represented light speed for an organization that “thinks in centuries,” one sign that the pope grasps the seriousness of the American situation.

The four-person drafting committee that prepared the concluding document was composed of McCarrick and Skylstad on the American side, and Castrillón and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s top aide, for the Vatican.

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002