Signs of the Times

Vatican on Scandals—Defensive but Understands Seriousness

After months of reticence, the Vatican confronted the painful issue of clerical sex abuse in a twin initiative—a papal letter and a press conference. According to John Thavis of Catholic News Service, statements issued on March 21 illustrated how well church leaders understand the gravity of this particular sin and the serious damage it has done to good Catholics and good priests. But they also revealed the Vatican’s defensiveness over public disclosure of such failings and its determination to work out short-range and long-range solutions behind closed doors.

In his annual letter to priests, Pope John Paul II called sex abuse by clergy a betrayal of priestly ordination. He said the perpetrators of such scandals have betrayed the priesthood and cast a “shadow of suspicion” over the many good priests in the world. “As priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the world,” the pope said.


While the Latin phrase—it means “the mystery of evil”—held dramatic significance for the pope, it may not have made a huge impact on the public at large, especially since the pope did not mention “sex abuse” by name. His two pronouncements on the problem in recent months have come at the end of lengthy written documents that few Catholics will ever read.

At the press conference, when one journalist asked whether the Vatican was aware that many U.S. Catholics want to hear something directly from their pope about these painful episodes, the question went unanswered. Indeed, the opinion voiced privately by many Vatican officials is that the current media storm over sex abuse cases will blow over, and that the pope need not publicly discuss such unseemly incidents. The idea that the pope needed to “break his silence” on sex abuse has greatly upset some Vatican officials, who noted that the pope has spoken out explicitly about the problem in the past, particularly in talks to U.S. bishops in 1993. But that only underlined the communications gap that exists between the United States, where information lives and dies in daily headlines, and the Vatican, where church positions build by accretion over decades or centuries.

To show that it is responding to the problem, the Vatican repeatedly has pointed to the new set of papal norms that centralized such cases and placed them under Vatican oversight. Yet the norms, issued last year, still have not been published and are being sent to bishops only on a need-to-know basis. In the United States, some would call that “lack of openness.” At the Vatican, this is seen as necessary confidentiality on a highly sensitive issue.

At the Vatican press conference, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos personified the Vatican approach. He took reporters’ questions, then read a prepared statement in response—a tactic that seemed to some outsiders more theater than candor, but was viewed at the Vatican as a significant act of frankness. Cardinal Castrillón defended the church’s historic severity with pedophile priests, cited papal statements on the issue and noted recent Vatican steps to deal with offenders. This information is often ignored in reporting on clerical sex abuse. But the cardinal, who heads the Congregation for Clergy, avoided all questions about how the Vatican plans to respond to some of the larger issues raised by the recent cases, such as screening of seminary candidates, homosexuality in the priesthood and priestly celibacy.

No Vatican official, in fact, has spoken in depth about the pastoral management issues raised by the handling of these cases. Cardinal Castrillón also implied that the problem was confined largely to English-speaking countries, that money was a factor in the cases coming to light and that priests were being unfairly singled out as a category of professionals when it comes to sex abuse.

The cardinal’s statement had been days in preparation, as Vatican officials discussed how—or whether—to respond to the growing sex abuse scandal. Vatican officials have refused requests for interviews and stayed silent on the topic. One exception to the rule was U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, the Vatican’s top communications official, as reported in these pages last week.

The Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, printed the pope’s Holy Thursday letter without comment and made no mention of Cardinal Castrillón’s lengthy statement on clerical sex abuse. It has not reported on the recent cases that have come to light in the United States and elsewhere.

This does not mean that sex abuse or pedophilia are taboo topics at the Vatican. During a 10-day period in March, a Vatican official published a major book on sexual abuse of children; the Vatican newspaper condemned perpetrators of such abuse and recommended no leniency by judges who sentence them; and the Vatican denounced sexual exploitation of children by pedophiles, telling a U.N.-sponsored conference that “the veil of silence...has finally been ripped open.” None of these Vatican initiatives mentioned priests.

Vatican Ethicists, British Bishops Differ on Ventilator Ruling

Vatican ethicists condemned a British High Court ruling that a paralyzed woman had the right to die and could order doctors to shut off a ventilator she needs to remain alive. But the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said the March 22 ruling simply confirmed the legal and moral right of patients to refuse burdensome life-prolonging treatment. “It is important to be clear,” a conference statement said, “that this case did not involve questions about euthanasia or assisted suicide and has set no precedents in respect of either.”

The woman, a 43-year-old former social worker, has needed a ventilator since a ruptured blood vessel in her neck last year left her unable to breathe unaided. She had asked doctors, who estimated her chance of rehabilitation at 1 percent, to unplug the machine. They refused, citing ethical concerns. But the chief judge of Britain’s family division ruled that the woman, identified only as Miss B, had the “necessary mental capacity to give consent or to refuse consent to life-sustaining medical treatment.”

Gino Concetti, a Franciscan priest and frequent columnist on moral issues for the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, condemned the decision and said it undermined the doctors’ role as healers and turned them into “cold and cynical executors of death.” Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said unplugging Miss B’s ventilator would be “a true act of euthanasia.”

Mandated Reporting Does Not Apply to All Sex Abuse Cases

The scandal over sex abuse has brought strong cries to include clergy among mandatory reporters in states where they are not already listed as such. “Mandatory reporter” is a shorthand designation for certain people—such as doctors, teachers, counselors or social workers—who are required by law to report to state authorities any allegations they hear or suspicions they have of a child being abused. But “the reporting laws generally don’t apply to anyone if the person [believed to have been an abuse victim] is no longer a minor,” said Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. If the childhood victim does not come forward until he or she is an adult and requests that the allegation not be made public, the person receiving the allegation may not be able to report it to civil authorities without violating the request for confidentiality.

Chopko said it is not uncommon for a victim who comes forward to seek confidentiality because he or she does not want media attention. “They’ll say, ‘Look, I’m married, I have a family, my life is coming together.’ In some of these situations, the person has never even told his parents.” That is why the Archdiocese of Boston said it would not hand over victims’ names without prior permission from them when it agreed to give district attorneys data on all priests with past allegations against them.

Chopko, who has worked with bishops across the country on child sex abuse issues for two decades, added that since about 1990, “more than 90 percent of the cases that come forward” involve allegations of abuse that occurred more than 10 or 15 years earlier, and it is unusual that the victim is still a minor. Father Kiley said that when an adult comes to a church official claiming to have been abused as a minor, “what most people do and what is good pastoral practice is to say to that person, ‘You have every right to go to the state’s attorney with that story, and if you want me to go with you, I’ll go with you.’”

News Briefs

• According to a Zogby poll, the percentage of Catholics who strongly or somewhat agreed that the bishops were doing a good job in leading the church fell from 84 percent five months ago to 68 percent today.

• The Edmonton-based Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Grandin Province will follow their Manitoba counterparts into bankruptcy if the Canadian government does not assume financial responsibility for residential school abuses, said the order’s provincial superior. The Manitoba Oblates are named in about 2,500 residential school lawsuits, with potential liability of about $170 million.

• Dioceses around the country and Catholic colleges and universities recently contributed more than $9 million over a 12-month period to support education for lay ministry.

• The Boston archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, clarified an earlier editorial that many had interpreted as a challenge to the church’s tradition of priestly celibacy. The newspaper said in an editorial on March 22 that it was merely voicing some lay leaders’ questions, including those on celibacy.

• Auxiliary Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco of Paris has filed a slander suit against a man who accused him of sexual abuse 30 years ago.

• Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan, Poland, who was accused of sexually molesting Catholic seminarians, has vigorously rejected all claims against him and promised to forgive his “persecutors.”

• Colombian police said 10 bishops and priests have received “constant and credible” death threats since the mid-March assassination of Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino.

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