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Church in Crisis

Vatican prelates oppose move to report priests


Four senior Catholic leaders, including two Vatican officials and a cardinal widely viewed as a leading candidate to be the next pope, have opposed policies that would require bishops to report sexual abuse charges against priests to the police.

Taken together, the comments suggest that if the U.S. bishops adopt a strong “automatic reporter” policy at their June meeting in Dallas, it could face opposition, not merely in Rome, but from prelates in other countries.

One American cardinal in Rome described the situation as a legal and cultural “chasm” between Anglo-Saxons and the rest of the Catholic world that “will be difficult to bridge” when it comes time for the Vatican to pass judgment on new American policies.

The debate may also reveal an intra-American fracture between bishops and priests. Some bishops, worried about legal liability and anxious to be responsive to victims, are frustrated with Vatican red flags on cooperation with the civil authorities. Priests, alarmed about the possibility of false charges, may actually welcome Rome’s caution.

The four Vatican officials who have spoken on the issue are Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the No. 2 figure in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and Jesuit Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a consultor to several Vatican agencies and a judge on a Vatican court.

Bertone’s comments came in a February interview with 30 Giorni, an Italian Catholic magazine directed by former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Bertone argued that a priest should be able to confide in his bishop without fear of legal consequences.

“In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offense of pedophilia is unfounded,” Bertone said. “Naturally civil society has the obligation to defend its citizens. But it must also respect the ‘professional secrecy’ of priests, as it respects the professional secrecy of other categories, a respect that cannot be reduced simply to the inviolable seal of the confessional.

“If a priest cannot confide in his bishop for fear of being denounced,” Bertone said, “then it would mean that there is no more liberty of conscience.”

Herranz’s analysis came in an April 29 address at the Catholic University in Milan (NCR, May 17). He called the demand for bishops to report priests an “unwarranted simplification.”

“When ecclesiastical authorities deal with these delicate problems, they not only must respect the presumption of innocence, they also have to honor the rapport of trust, and the consequent secrecy of the office, inherent in relations between a bishop and his priest collaborators,” Herranz said. “Not to honor these exigencies would bring damages of great seriousness for the church.”

The strongest language came in a May 16 news conference in Rome with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. Rodriguez, 59, is seen as a leading Latin American candidate to succeed John Paul II.

“Pedophilia is a sickness, and those with this sickness must leave the priesthood. But we must not move from this to remedies that are non-Christian. … For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop. We are totally different, and I’d be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests. I say this with great clarity,” Rodriguez said.

“We must not forget that we are pastors, not agents of the FBI or CIA.”

Finally, Jesuit Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, dean of the canon law faculty at Rome’s Gregorian University and a judge for the Apostolic Signatura, considered the Vatican’s supreme court, addressed the issue in the May 18 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica. The journal is considered quasi-official since it is reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication.

“Certainly it does not seem pastoral behavior when a bishop or religious superior who has received a complaint informs the legal authorities of the fact in order to avoid being implicated in a civil process that the victim could undertake,” Ghirlanda wrote.

In the article, Ghirlanda also stressed the bishop’s responsibility to protect the good name of priests. A bishop may not require a priest to submit to psychological testing to determine his propensity for committing sexual abuse, Ghirlanda wrote. He recommended that if a bishop decides to reassign a priest who has committed sexual abuse after he has undergone treatment, the priest’s new parochial community should not be informed of his past.

All four men spoke or wrote in Italian.

Taken together, the statements suggest a growing consensus among non-U.S. church leaders that automatic reporter policies are problematic.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Vatican, said that things look different in light of the recent experience of the U.S. church.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of the bishop acting as policeman,” Stafford said of calls for automatic reporter policies in a May 20 interview with NCR. “It’s a matter of working cooperatively with the civil arm of government in one’s ministry to serve the best interests of all the people, of whom the bishop is father and shepherd.

“A bishop is the pastor not only of priests, but of all the faithful, including the victims. We’ve had to learn this over the years,” Stafford said.

Yet Stafford acknowledged that if the U.S. bishops adopt a strong policy on cooperation with the police, they may face a difficult sales job in Rome.

“I suspect that the chasm that exists between the two cultural experiences will be difficult to bridge,” Stafford said.

One part of that chasm, Stafford said, is a different attitude toward state authority. While some Latin American church leaders such as Rodriguez, and even John Paul II himself in Poland, grew up under totalitarian regimes in which denouncing priests to the police was tantamount to collusion, Americans look at things differently.

“We’ve had a centuries-long experience of the police in the United States that has been basically a positive one,” Stafford said.

Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Council for Social Communications in the Vatican, agreed that differing cultural perspectives may be part of the mix.

“In communist societies, they used charges like this to discredit priests, so this may be part of the concern,” Foley told NCR May 20.

Still, Paulist Fr. Paul Robichaud, pastor of the American parish of Santa Susanna in Rome, said he wouldn’t chalk up Vatican reservations entirely to differing cultural perspectives. He told NCR May 20 that he also sees a legitimate impulse to protect priests from false accusations.

“All of us who are pastors are surrounded by broken people whose emotional and mental health is fragile,” Robichaud said. “This crisis has empowered these folks to make false charges that a year-and-a-half ago would not have been taken seriously.

“There is a crisis of morale among priests in the United States,” Robichaud said, “and priests expect their bishop or religious superior to stand with them, not against them.”

Thus when he hears the Vatican holding the line against policies that would obligate bishops to take even potentially unfounded charges to the police, Robichaud said his reaction is simple.

“Bravo for the Vatican,” he said.

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002