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Curia official blasts U.S. media coverage


In the most explosive comments to date on the sex abuse crisis by a senior aide to Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s top canon lawyer has called massive church payouts for clerical misconduct “unwarranted,” and criticized a climate of “exaggeration, financial exploitation and nervousness” in the United States.

Archbishop Julián Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, also complained of a “tenacious, scandalistic style” in the press. Certain media outlets, he suggested, seek to “sully the image of the church and the Catholic priesthood, and to weaken the moral credibility of the magisterium.”

Herranz referred to pedophilia as a “concrete form of homosexuality,” taking sides in a growing debate about the relationship between homosexuality and clerical sexual misconduct.

In speaking so bluntly, Herranz aired views that are widely held within the Vatican but rarely voiced publicly.

Herranz also criticized proposals to defrock an abuser priest outside the procedures specified in canon law, although Vatican sources told NCR that this should not be taken as a signal of disapproval for the two “special processes” recommended by American participants in a recent Vatican summit.

Herranz, 72, the lone Opus Dei member to head a Vatican office, was one of seven curial officials who participated in the April 23-24 summit with the American cardinals. His latest comments came at the Catholic University in Milan April 29, where he lectured on canon law in the life of the church.

In that speech, Herranz devoted nine paragraphs to the American situation. He emphasized that he was speaking personally and did not intend to pass judgment on the summit.

Calling the American crisis a “sad situation,” Herranz said, “It has created an unjust climate of suspicion and ambivalence toward priests, on account of a tenacious, scandalistic style, which is not merely informative, in which certain ‘media’ give voice to any charges whatsoever.”

Two paragraphs later, Herranz provided the clearest evidence to date that for many policy-makers in the Vatican, homosexuality is among the root causes of clerical pedophilia.

Observing that canon law provides for dismissal from the clerical state for priests who commit certain offenses, Herranz added, “and not solely that concrete form of homosexuality that is pedophilia.” He cited canon 1395 of the Code of Canon Law, which refers to “sins against the sixth commandment” by priests.

Herranz also underscored the need to protect the due process rights of all parties to an accusation of misconduct, including the accused priest. He referred both to canon law and to a recent papal document that centralized juridical responsibility for six offenses, including sexual abuse of a minor, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“To ignore these processes,” Herranz said, “or other penal or disciplinary measures that must be taken in order to prohibit or limit the pastoral activity of those priests about whom there are serious indications of behaviors of this sort, would denote a lack of the most fundamental sense of justice.”

While recognizing the competence of civil authorities, Herranz expressed strong reservations about the application to the Catholic church of two hallmarks of American civil law -- an obligation to report misconduct and monetary damages for institutional negligence.

“Given the emotional wave of public clamor,” Herranz said, “some envision an obligation on the part of ecclesiastical authority to denounce to civil judges all the cases that come to their attention, as well an obligation to communicate to judges all the documentation from ecclesiastical archives.”

Herranz rejected the idea.

“The rapport of trust and the secrecy of the office inherent to the relationship between the bishop and his priest collaborators, and between priests and the faithful, must be respected,” he said.

Herranz also expressed skepticism about financial compensation.

“The dominant jurisprudence in the United States [assumes] an almost unlimited juridical responsibility of the church for any wrongful behavior of its ministers,” he said. “But even in the case of clergy, there are types of behavior that are not controllable [by church authority], because they do not regard the exercise of ministry, but enter into the sphere of their private life and their exclusively personal responsibility.”

Herranz insisted that the crisis must not taint the priesthood.

“We must oppose efforts to impede the necessary pastoral work of priests with young children and adolescents, or to discourage vocations or entrance into seminaries that have been generically and unjustly defamed,” he said.

Finally, Herranz said that “exceptional cases” must not call into question the “touchstones of the doctrine and discipline of the church concerning the priesthood.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002