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Chaotic Vatican summit produces flawed document


Pressures of time and conflicting views left the final communiqué from last week’s Vatican summit with the American cardinals regarding clergy sex abuse a flawed document, according to participants.

Just how flawed is a matter of debate.

Accounts differ on how much significance to attach to language calling for a tougher line against “individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care.” Insistence on this point came from Vatican officials, according to sources, and Americans differ on how hard to push it.

All agree that one key idea was left out of the document: a call for greater lay involvement in handling sex abuse cases, including the idea of a national blue-ribbon lay commission for approving standards and accountability measures. That omission ran contrary to repeated media statements from cardinals in favor of greater lay involvement.

Eyebrows went up among canon law experts over two recommendations for “special processes” to expel an abuser from the priesthood. How those processes will work and how they will be reconciled with concerns for the due process rights of accused priests remain to be seen.

The communiqué is divided into two parts, with six introductory observations that are supposed to reflect the consensus of the entire group, and six specific recommendations that were voted upon only by the eight American cardinals who reside in the United States. Those points emerged largely from an Americans-only meeting on Monday evening, April 22, before the summit began.

One American participant, who asked to remain anonymous, told NCR that the language about “dissent” and “ambiguous pastoral practices” was penned by two Vatican officials. They were Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the No. 2 official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Forget it,” this participant said. “We all thought it had been dropped from the final communiqué, but with the chaos, it stayed in.”

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference and a member of the drafting committee, acknowledged that the language on dissent “came from the Vatican side.”

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Vatican’s Council for Laity, nevertheless told NCR that he felt the language on dissent fairly reflected the thinking of the group.

“Everyone wanted to reaffirm the teaching of the church that led to the encyclical Humanae Vitae, its anthropological view of the human person,” Stafford said. “There is no doubt that one part of the current crisis is an ambience of dissent in the church.”

Asked for clarification about what sort of dissent or ambiguous pastoral practices the document has in mind, a spokesperson for the U.S. bishops told NCR that it refers to “any groups which promote dissent from and a change in the church’s teaching on sexuality.”

“I presume past actions by the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith would be a good guide,” said Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, who coordinated media relations for the Rome summit.

Yet Skylstad said he does not envision broad new crackdowns on dissenting theologians or activists. “I didn’t pick that up at the meeting,” he told NCR. “I just got the impression that we need to be responsible in our presentation of church teaching.”

In reconstructing the process that led to the communiqué, participants agree that the single most important variable was the deadline of 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, when a news conference had been called in the Vatican press office.

A massive contingent of largely American press was on hand, waiting for the final documents: a letter to American priests from the U.S. cardinals, plus the communiqué, containing the substantive results of the meeting. The news conference was to be carried live on CNN. In fact, the news conference did not begin until shortly before 10:00 p.m., reflecting the last-minute nature of the work.

The four-person drafting committee was composed of Castrillón and Bertone for the Vatican, and Skylstad and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington for the Americans. Castrillón and Bertone produced one draft in Italian, while Skylstad and McCarrick produced a text in English. The idea was to combine the two.

The first version of the communiqué to be circulated among the rest of the participants was in Italian, which participants described as “sketchy,” with certain points from the discussion left out and other ideas that had not formed a central part of the two-day meeting included.

The rest of the participants then began to react to the Italian draft at the same time that an English version was prepared. Eventually, the cardinals found themselves working from an Italian text and three English texts, none of which was fully accurate.

With the clock ticking and the Vatican press office full of reporters, the cardinals rushed through a version of the communiqué, the contents of which seemed a surprise even to them.

Asked by NCR about the failure to mention the laity during the news conference, McCarrick had to admit puzzlement that the point was missing, saying it had been present in an earlier version of the document.

One American cardinal told NCR that he did not see the final version of the communiqué until he returned home and found it on the Internet.

Given the chaos, some participants have counseled reporters to focus on the pope’s April 23 message and the six recommendations from the Americans at the end of the text, ignoring the rest.

“We should have stayed an extra day,” one participant told NCR. “With a good night’s sleep, we could have ended up with something clearer. But everyone had flights, and we ended up with a version that was not fully reflective of our discussions and the Americans’ proposals.”

Stafford, on the other hand, said he felt that “the integrity of the document was preserved” despite the last-minute haste.

“It reflects the views of all the participants,” Stafford said.

A further point from the communiqué puzzling some experts is a call for two new “special processes” for removing a priest from the clerical state. The first would apply to a “notorious” priest guilty of “serial, predatory abuse.” The second would handle cases of priests who are “not notorious,” but who, in the judgment of a bishop, pose “a threat for the protection of children and young people.”

Given that the Vatican adopted a new set of norms, made public in December, designed to handle just these kinds of cases, many canon lawyers were left scratching their heads. Those norms promised expedited treatment, and centralized the cases in two new tribunals within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (NCR, Dec. 14, 2001).

Why was there no mention of the new process for dealing with precisely the sorts of cases identified by the American cardinals?

Stafford said he saw two differences between the new Vatican norms and the “special process” being proposed by the Americans, details of which should emerge at the meeting of the U.S. bishops in June. The first is that the special process would be more rapid, since many American cardinals feel the process for removing a priest is “too prolonged.”

Second, Stafford said, the special process would lead to a decision by a diocesan bishop, rather than a church court. The priest would still have the right of appeal to Rome.

Skylstad said those cardinals with training in canon law cautioned that any procedure to be adopted by the U.S. bishops in June will have to respect the due process rights of the accused.

Still, Skylstad said the apparent green light from the Vatican for a faster, more bishop-controlled process represents progress.

“Years ago, this would not have been possible,” he said.

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002