Vatican Weighs Reaction to Accusations of Molesting by Clergy
By Melinda Hennenberger
New York Times
March 3, 2002
Rome, March 2 - Many Vatican officials, conservative and liberal alike,
say it will take a sweeping reform of the priesthood to stop the pedophile
The liberals want better psychological screening and revamped training
The conservatives shift the focus elsewhere, saying that sexual abuse
cases in the church mainly involve teenage boys, not young children, and
for that reason they say the priesthood should become less welcoming to
Priests who said this made clear they were not suggesting that gays were
any more likely to be pedophiles. But they said most of the sex cases
being investigated did not fit the classic definition of pedophilia.
With this in mind, Pope John Paul II's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls,
questioned whether ordinations of gays were even valid.
"People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," Dr.
Navarro-Valls said in an interview, citing canon law but wading into what
he knew was sensitive territory.
"That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality,"
added Dr. Navarro-Valls, a Spanish layman who is a psychiatrist by training.
"But you cannot be in this field."
Dr. Navarro-Valls compared the situation of a gay man who becomes a priest
to that of a gay man who marries a woman unaware of his orientation. Just
as such a marriage can be annulled, considered invalid from the first,
the ordination might similarly be invalid, he said.
Where Dr. Navarro-Valls and a number of conservative American priests
differ is on the Vatican's handling of the sex scandals.
The Vatican response has been so low-key that a surprising number of
the Vatican rank and file are still only dimly aware of the crisis in
the American Catholic Church, these priests say.
For Americans here, the scandals back home have been Topic A for weeks.
"Our bishops are in hysteria," one priest said. The law is "out
the window, and suddenly it's like the French Revolution."
Still, he added: "Good will come out of it eventually. There will
be bloodletting, but we are learning."
As big as the story is in the United States, "You certainly don't
hear about it here among colleagues who are not American," said the
Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in
To the extent that others are aware of it, many tend to write it off
as an American problem. So there is widespread unhappiness among Americans
at the Vatican, even among conservatives who are usually the least inclined
to criticize the hierarchy. On this issue, they say the response from
Rome has been embarrassingly weak.
Several, none willing to be quoted, independently used the word disaster
to describe both scandal and response, which they characterized as wait-and-see.
They say that approach is typical of a still Italian, largely Eurocentric
church unaware of the gravity of the situation.
The pope's spokesman argued that point. "We're very well aware of
the dimension and implications of the problem," Dr. Navarro-Valls
said ruefully, "very well aware." Asked if there had been any
discussion of the need to formally respond to the American scandals from
here, he said: "Not for now. They're working on it there."
When the pope has something to say to one of his bishops or cardinals,
Dr. Navarro-Valls said, he delivers the message directly and not through
Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who has been under pressure to resign over his
handling of cases in the Boston archdiocese, came to Rome six weeks ago
and met with the pope privately, Dr. Navarro-Valls said. Until recently,
Cardinal Law was considered the Vatican's favorite American cardinal,
but that is no longer the case, a number of officials said.
Dr. Navarro-Valls defended the pope's silence on the scandals by arguing
that the pope had spoken "very explicitly" on the general topic
of sex abuse by members of the clergy in a recent Vatican document.
But the way the pope communicated his apology to victims of abuse --
in a paragraph deep inside a document about a bishops' conference of several
years ago -- was also cited as an indication that the church was not addressing
the matter urgently.
Without criticizing the pope, people in church circles here express a
frustration with the Vatican's inability to respond more quickly and less
Another reason for the Vatican's muted response is that even now the
standards for reporting and addressing accusations of sex abuse in the
United States are seen as a model that the church would like to export
to where such problems have been ignored. In Western Europe, for example,
there are no treatment centers specifically for sexually abusive clergy
members, and sex scandals of all kinds receive much less attention than
they do in the United States.
The true intention of a recent move to centralize the way accusations
of sex abuse against priests are handled, Vatican officials insist, is
to bring the rest of the church up to American standards.
"Now when there's a problem it must be reported to the Vatican,"
Dr. Navarro-Valls said. "This is not going to be a substitute for
any legal or criminal penalties but will be an additional guarantee, an
acknowledgment of the seriousness of the problem."
The Holy See has thwarted American bishops who want to make it easier
under canon law to dismiss predatory priests.
"Americans bishops want to be able to decide this on their own,
administratively, rather than going through the judicial process"
spelled out in church law, said one Italian canon lawyer at the Vatican.
The judicial process can take years, whereas the administrative decision
can be immediate.
He accused Americans of pushing for this change only because tort law
in the United States exposes bishops to liability in a way that does not
"The painful thing is that it's all about money now," the Italian
Dr. Navarro-Valls said the pope had reacted with pain to the disclosures.
"He has shown tremendous sadness, a very physical sadness that affected
his whole body and said, "How can this happen?' " Dr. Navarro-Valls
said. "This has been my impression several times."