Bishop Accountability

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 scandals.

The liberals want better psychological screening and revamped training in seminaries.

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 gays.

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 Rome.

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 news releases.

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 obscurely.

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 apply elsewhere.

"The painful thing is that it's all about money now," the Italian priest said.

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."



Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.