Vatican Quandary: Complicated Decision on Sex Abuse Norms
As the Vatican debates how it will respond to U.S. norms on clerical sex abuse, it is not dealing only with the finer points of church law. It is also confronting larger issues of church communion—the ties that exist between a bishop and a priest and between the pope and the bishops. At the end of September, those bonds of communion seemed to be pulling Vatican officials in different directions.
Some spoke passionately about the risk of destroying the special trust that should mark the bishop-priest relationship. In their view, the U.S. norms would transform bishops from spiritual guides into reporting agents and sever this bond of trust at a time when a priest may need it most.
But others are just as concerned that the bonds of communion between Pope John Paul II and U.S. bishops could suffer serious damage if the norms are rejected. The bishops overwhelmingly approved the norms in June, and a Vatican no could appear to signal lack of papal confidence in the bishops as pastors and teachers—with far-reaching repercussions among U.S. Catholics.
Some Vatican officials were pushing for a type of conditional approval that would allow the norms to be used on an experimental basis. Others believed firmly that the Vatican should invite the bishops to change some key elements deemed “incompatible with the church’s universal law.” As September drew to a close, the “experimental” route appeared the most likely, according to a senior Vatican official. Other sources said the delicate debate was still simmering and predicted it could go on longer than many expect. The pope was to review the final recommendation; he was not taking a direct role in the preliminary meetings.
Among the Vatican’s experts in church law, one of the more subtle arguments—perhaps least understood by the public—is that the U.S. norms would poison this trust by forcing bishops into an antagonistic legal relationship with any accused priest.
“The bishop has a pastoral responsibility for his priest, even if the priest is guilty. The priest can eventually repent and seek forgiveness, and the bishop should in fact be working for this, trying to recover him spiritually. But many of these norms instead seem designed to cut the priest off,” said one canonist in Rome.
There is no doubt that in the circle of canon law experts consulted by the Vatican, the prevailing view of the U.S. norms is negative. Some experts, for example, worried that the accepted definition of sexual abuse has become too elastic in the United States. They see it as based too much on the subjective feelings of a victim rather than objective behavior and believe this principle should not find its way into church law.
New Panel to Address Bishops’ Accountability on Sex Abuse
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established a five-member committee to address issues of bishops’ accountability in clergy sexual abuse cases. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., named Bishop Robert H. Brom of San Diego to head the new committee. Other committee members are Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago; Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco; Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn.; and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh. The committee, which arose from discussions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas, was expected to report on its work at the bishops’ annual fall general meeting (Nov. 11-14 ) in Washington, D.C., said a U.S.C.C.B. spokeswoman.
Full Financial Disclosure Essential to Church Response to Crisis
Although the majority of U.S. Catholics have remained “steadfast and faithful” in their financial support for the Catholic Church during the crisis over clergy sex abuse, it is no time to “put their loyalty to any further tests,” a national conference of diocesan fiscal managers was told on Sept. 25. “It is time now for full disclosure, complete openness and total accountability,” said Fred L. Hofheinz, program director for religion at the Lilly Endowment Inc. “It is of paramount importance for every diocese in the nation to prepare and widely circulate, at the soonest possible moment, a comprehensive, clear, lucid, understandable, transparent and brutally honest financial accounting to the people—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—of their region,” he added. In those dioceses where payments were made to victims of sexual abuse by clergy, there is a “grave responsibility” to publish “a complete and forthright statement that accounts for the expenditure of all donated funds,” Mr. Hofheinz said.
Survey of New Priests
According to a survey of the ordination class of 2002, 15 percent are Hispanic, a higher figure than in recent years and more than double that of 1984, when the percentage was 7 percent. The increased percentage, however, is still lower than the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. church, a figure estimated to be between 25 percent and 30 percent. Six percent of the ordination class were born in Vietnam.
The new priests were also older and had more education before entering the seminary. The average age when they entered studies rose to 36.7 in 2002 from 34.8 in 1998, when the survey began.
The survey also introduced a series of questions asking the seminarians about their own experience with vocation programs. The encouragement to consider a vocation most often remembered came from personal contact, especially by a priest, friend or seminarian. The second most common were retreat programs. Most of the seminarians ordained this year had been actively involved in their parishes as altar servers, lectors and eucharistic ministers.
Theologians Find Women Deacons Had Different Role
The International Theological Commission has concluded that women deacons in the early church performed a role that was different from that of the ordained male diaconate. The conclusion was part of a document on the theological role and identity of permanent deacons, approved by commission members during a meeting at the Vatican on Sept. 30-Oct. 4.
Last year the commission gave preliminary approval to the text, pending further research in two areas: whether the permanent diaconate was part of the sacrament of orders, and the role of women deacons in the early church, said the Rev. Thomas Norris, a commission member who teaches dogmatic theology in Ireland. Father Norris told Catholic News Service on Oct. 1 that the commission concluded that the diaconate did indeed belong to the sacrament of orders.
On the second question, he said, the commission unanimously agreed after studying ancient documents that “you can’t make a simple equivalence between what was called diaconate in relation to women in the ancient church and the diaconate of men.” Father Norris said, “You have to look at what deaconesses did in the ancient church, what was their nature, their commissioning, and so on.” Father Norris said the question of whether women deacons could or should be allowed in the modern church was left open. “It will remain a matter for the magisterium of the church to decide.”
Commission members said it was now up to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, to decide whether to publish the document on deacons. The commission also was considering two other documents during its meeting. It approved one on revelation and inculturation; it was reviewing another one that examined the human person as created in God’s image, in light of contemporary scientific developments.
Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Archbishop Edgardo Gabriel Storni of Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz, Argentina, following accusations that he sexually abused seminarians.
The German bishops’ conference issued guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse of children by clergy and admitted mishandling cases in the past. Under the guidelines, every accusation will be investigated promptly, the church will cooperate with prosecutors and those priests found guilty may be removed from the priesthood.
The pope named Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, replacing Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez of Chile, who retired at age 75. Named to head the interreligious dialogue council was English Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, 65, who has been secretary of the council since 1991. Archbishop Renato R. Martino was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Priests who have engaged in pedophilia can be forgiven but should not be allowed to return to ministry, said Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange, Calif. It is a misconception to hold “that forgiveness of a perpetrator must involve return to ministry,” Bishop Soto said at a national meeting of Hispanic priests on Sept. 25.
The archbishop of Karachi said the latest killing of Christians and ongoing threats against their communities will not prevent Christians from continuing justice and peace work. Archbishop Simeon Pereira visited the office of the Committee for Justice and Peace, a joint initiative of the Archdiocese of Karachi and the Church of Pakistan, hours after two gunmen killed six Catholics and one Protestant and injured two other people on Sept. 25.