Washington Notebook

July 15, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 25

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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Boston defended; Bishops lobby; McCarrick on Benedict and evolution

By Joe Feuerherd

Why is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee posting a list of the most egregious Catholic clergy sex abuse cases on its Web site? What does this have to do with returning control of the Senate to the Democrats?

More than you'd think.

Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is the controversial conservative incumbent in what will be the most hotly contested Senate race of 2006. Three years ago, in July 2002, he penned a column for Catholic Online, a conservative Web site. "The most obvious change must occur within American seminaries, many of which demonstrate the same brand of cultural liberalism plaguing our secular universities," wrote Santorum.

"When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected," he continued. "While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

Santorum's formula -- cultural liberalism leads to child rape -- was largely ignored at the time. No brouhaha. No headlines.

Given the context in which Santorum wrote (the U.S. bishops, meeting in Dallas, had just established their National Review Board to investigate the crisis and promoted a "one strike and you're out policy" for clerical abusers) it's not surprising that even the provocative words of a prominent senator were ignored. There was a lot being said about priest-molesters and their protectors at the time, much of it half-baked, most of it lost in the cacophony of voices chiming in on the hot topic of the day.

All that changed this week.

On July 12, Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, sarcasm uncontained, recalled Santorum's column and thanked him "for sharing his incredible wisdom and insight about this city and its depraved ways." The following day, Globe reporter Susan Milligan caught up with Santorum off the Senate floor. No, Santorum told Milligan, he was not apologizing for his remarks or recanting his views. "'The basic liberal attitude in that area ... has an impact on people's behavior," Santorum told Milligan.

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She reported on the conversation in the Globe. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was quoted in the piece. Santorum, said the congressman known for his witty repartee, is "a jerk."

Things were just getting started.

Sen. Edward Kennedy took to the Senate Floor July 13 to defend the Bay State's honor. Santorum should apologize for his comments, said Kennedy.

"Senator Santorum has shown a deep and callous insensitivity to the victims and their suffering in an apparent attempt to score political points with some of the most extreme members of the fringe right wing of his Party," said Kennedy. "Boston bashing might be in vogue with some Republicans, but Rick Santorum's statements are beyond the pale." Massachusetts, noted Kennedy, "has the lowest divorce rate in the nation."

Santorum, it seems, was questioning the patriotism of the commonwealth's citizens. "The men and women of Boston have served honorably in our armed forces," said Kennedy. "They have fought and died for our country, so that their children might live in freedom and opportunity."

John Kerry, too, wrapped his criticism of Santorum in the flag. "The families of Massachusetts soldiers who have given their lives for their country in Iraq know more about the mainstream American values of Massachusetts than Rick Santorum ever will."

Then the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) -- the entity hoping to send Santorum to the private sector and restoring a Democratic majority to the world's greatest deliberative body, got in the act.

"What about your home state of Pennsylvania, Senator Santorum?" where, said the DSCC, "at least 23 active priests accused of abuse have been removed from assignments … as a result of reviews by diocesan officials and new claims by alleged victims."

The DSCC then catalogued a series of clergy sexual abuse cases in areas (Kentucky, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Santa Fe, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina) presumed not infected with "cultural liberalism."

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It's all about politics, Santorum told participants on a July 14 teleconference call with members of the Catholic press. "There is no depth to which they will not sink," he said of the Democratic attacks. Then he too got personal: ""I am for proper formation, something I would challenge Senator Kennedy to be for. Proper orthodox formation within the teachings of the Vatican. I don't think Senator Kennedy would follow that very closely."

(There's a headline for you: "Kennedy Opposes Proper Formation.")

Some observations on the brouhaha.

First, there's a rule in politics: don't speak unless you're going to improve the silence. Santorum, God knows, is not the only politician who regularly violates this precept. Still, his observations about gay marriage (which, he told The New York Times, poses a threat to his own marriage), government oversight of the bedroom (lack of it could lead to legal bestiality or polygamy), and the clergy sex abuse crisis, do suggest a man enamored with the sound of his own voice. Sure, like the rest of us, he's free to comment on whatever moves him. But Pennsylvania voters didn't elect Santorum to solve the clergy sex abuse crisis. Why he felt compelled to jump into the discussion raises as many questions about his judgment as what he actually said.

Next, Santorum's comments about the sex abuse crisis, however wrongheaded or provocatively stated, are hardly unconventional.

"The apparent significant increase in acts of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the 1960s and 1970s cannot be viewed without acknowledging significant changes in sexual behavior in the culture at large during the same time period," according to the much-praised Feb. 2004 report of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.

That study is widely known as the "Bennett Report," after Washington attorney Robert Bennett; among the board members who approved the language was former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Hardly out-of-the-mainstream rightwing types. Moreover, as the report makes clear, this view is shared by more than a few bishops.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says "it is clear that Santorum's remarks are beyond the scope of what anyone in public life should be allowed to say [emphasis added]." That's baloney. If the politicians really want to engage the discussion of the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis (and, in fact, they really don't), questions about "cultural liberalism" are clearly on the table. They can be refuted but they can't simply be rejected.

Further, Santorum is correct on at least one point. If he wasn't up for reelection next year, nobody would care what he said three years about the clergy sex abuse crisis.

So what should senators concerned about clerical sex abuse actually do? A friend of mine, a disenchanted Catholic and former Capitol Hill staffer who is no fan of the church's leadership, has a suggestion: Legislators should call for a Justice Department investigation into an institution that for decades covered-up crimes against children by moving child molesters across state lines.

Don't, however, hold your breath waiting for Senators Santorum, Kerry and Kennedy to embrace this suggestion. That would require more than political posturing and media maneuvering.


Santorum, meanwhile, told the Catholic press, that he met on July 13 with Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That meeting, and others with both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, are part of the bishops' efforts to promote their legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, according to Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the USCCB. Santorum, as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is a member of the Senate leadership. Skylstad was joined by the bishops' lobbyist, Frank Monaghan, and by Sr. Lourdes Sheehan, the conference's associate general secretary.

Details on the bishops' legislative priorities can be found on the USCCB Web site, http://www.usccb.org/ogl/agendarelease.shtml.


Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick addressed the National Press Club July 11. His task was to share insights into the new pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Joseph Ratzinger, said McCarrick, is "complex and yet very simple," a "brilliant theologian" and "very important writer of spiritual books," "friendly," "somewhat shy but totally engaging," "humble," "holy," an "extraordinary bishop," "lovely," "gracious," and a "great listener."

He is "a gift to the church as our Holy Father," said McCarrick.

If McCarrick offered no space between himself and Benedict, he did seem to distance himself, albeit diplomatically, from Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

In the July 7 New York Times, Schönborn penned an op-ed in which he stated: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."

He continued, "Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence."

McCarrick, in response to a question about the Schönborn article, stated: "Cardinal Schönborn is a dear friend of mine and is a genius, and I have deepest respect for him, and I'm sure that what I'm going to say does not disagree with him …

"It seems to me that as long as in every understanding of evolution the hand of God is recognized as being present, we can accept that. In other words, it does not -- you need not say that creationism is the only answer, that in six days or seven days God made the world. … John Paul II would say, yes, evolution is fine as long as it has a place for the creator; as long as it has a place for God. But you cannot say this is all an accident, this is all something that happened by coincidence -- that I cannot accept, that the church cannot accept. The will of God is involved here."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

Editor's Note: Washington Notebook by NCR correspondent Joe Feuerherd has ceased weekly publication. The column will continue to be posted on an occasional basis. Watch for e-mail alerts and check our Web site for the latest postings of Washington Notebook.

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