|Why is sexual
abuse by clergy, to judge by the preponderance of lawsuits, media accounts
and public outcry, almost entirely an Anglo-Saxon story?
It is in Australia, Canada,
Ireland, England and the United States where dioceses have faced bankruptcy
in settling legal judgments related to clergy sex abuse. It was the diocese
of Cardiff in England last October where Bishop John Ward was forced to
resign under a hail of protests related to his mishandling of priest offenders,
and it is Boston today where Cardinal Bernard Law faces similar pressures.
It is in the Anglo-Saxon
world where the drumbeat of press coverage of the sex abuse problem is
never-ending. Here in Italy, meanwhile, similar public comment is rare.
If I depended solely upon the Italian papers for my knowledge of the Catholic
world, I might not even realize a sex abuse problem exists.
One measure of the difference:
The parish priest across the street from my office can still take a group
of young boys, unescorted, on overnight camping trips without parents raising
hell. Try that in Boston.
I do not believe for
a minute that the difference is the result of priests in Australia or the
United States being any worse than Italians, or Spaniards, or anyone else.
Human nature being what it is, I take for granted that distorted behavior,
including sexual misconduct, is probably just about the same everywhere.
Hence I ask again: Why
is this story told almost exclusively in English?
As I reflect on the question,
and talk with various people around Rome about it, I see four factors accounting
for the difference.
on the press: Newspapers and broadcast media in much of Europe tend
to be beholden, directly or indirectly, to political interests. In Anglo-Saxon
countries, press outlets are generally for-profit commercial enterprises
without clear party affiliation. As a result, the Anglo-Saxon press tends
to show greater aggressiveness in exposing wrongdoing by public officials
(ecclesiastical or otherwise). The Anglo-Saxon journalistic hero is the
investigative reporter — Woodward meeting secret sources in dark garages.
For Europeans, the hero
tends to be the pundit, the author whose mastery of words finds creative
ways to express ideological convictions. (One key difference is that you
can be a journalistic celebrity in Europe without ever leaving your study).
Equally important, the commercial nature of Anglo-Saxon journalism means
that the media is motivated to cover stories that attract audiences, and
nothing sells like sex. Thus in the case of clerical sexual abuse, both
the strengths and weaknesses of Anglo-Saxon journalism combine to make
the story a natural.
of public interest: As is well known, Europeans and other cultures
tend to still regard certain zones of human behavior as inappropriate fodder
for public discussion. I know of a situation in Rome, for example, where
a pastor of a parish was accused by a group of parents of sexually abusing
their children. The mother who originally brought forward the charges,
in fact, claimed that she had been abused by the same priest as a child.
The accusations divided
the parish, and led to the priest’s removal. A public meeting of parishioners
was held to discuss the controversy. You wouldn’t know about it from reading
the Italian press, however, because no one covered it. Not because they
didn’t know, but because, according to the Italian sensibility, it’s not
the sort of thing that belongs in the paper. In the States, needless to
say, the same story would run on A-1.
Tort law: In the
Anglo-Saxon world, if someone wrongs you, you may sue to recover monetary
damages. Even though in many cases money is inadequate to undo the harm,
nevertheless it’s the closest thing to reparative justice the courts can
provide. Because of the hierarchical nature of the Catholic church and
the considerable resources of most Catholic dioceses, this means there
is almost always a set of “deep pockets” to target when wrong is committed
by a priest. The prospect of large financial settlements makes every accusation
of sexual abuse a much larger story, and lengthy court proceedings tend
to keep each story alive much longer.
In most Anglo-Saxon countries (with the obvious exception of Ireland),
the Catholic church is a minority. It tends to be an outspoken minority,
especially on sexual issues such as abortion, divorce, birth control, and
the like. Hence for the “cultured despisers” of Catholicism, some of whom
are influential in the media, there is no better club with which to beat
the church than the accusation of sexual hypocrisy and dysfunction within
its leadership ranks. In that sense, the pedophelia story plays well for
those aggravated by the public stands of the Catholic church.
This analysis, by the
way, may soon be out of date, because there are indications that the clerical
sexual abuse story may be breaking out of its Anglo-Saxon confines. See,
for example, my story on Polish Archbishop Juliusz Paetz in this week’s
The Paetz case could raise questions, for the first time, about the pope
himself in regard to the promotion of a clergyman accused of misconduct.
If that happens, I suspect it will get the world’s attention.
* * *
Last week I bumped into
Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for
Bishops and a leading candidate to be the next pope, at a conference. An
organizer presented me to him, and I reminded Re that we had last met outside
the Holy Office during October’s Synod of Bishops.
“Ah yes, it was a great
pleasure for me,” the ever-gracious Re chirped.
I did not bother reminding
him that our encounter was something less than a great pleasure for me.
The context was the opening day of the synod, and I had positioned myself
in a good spot to flag down participants for comments. When Re arrived,
I asked for a brief interview.
“You should find someone
who’s in the habit of talking to the press,” Re told me. “I’m not accustomed
to giving interviews.”
I pointed out that he
had appeared on the RAI state television network just the night before
(though admittedly he hadn’t said much).
“Okay, one question,”
“What are you expecting
from the synod?” I asked. Bear in mind this was a synod about bishops,
and Re is the Catholic church’s top official on bishops. Under ordinary
circumstances, I would expect a prelate in that situation to spout off
“I expect what will come,”
was the entirety of Re’s response.
He flashed a smile and
It was a vintage Re moment.
I frankly can think of no member of the College of Cardinals who has worked
harder to avoid taking a public position on any of the hot-button issues
in the life of the church.
It should be said that
Re is a legend in Vatican circles for hard work and an encyclopedic grasp
of the inner workings of the curia. But ask what his theological positions
are, and shoulders start shrugging.
Hence, when I saw Re
scheduled to give a lecture in Milan this past Monday on “Episcopal Collegiality
and the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff,” my pulse quickened. Here, at last,
I hoped we would get some sense of where Re stands on a hotly debated topic.
Having read the speech,
I have to say I don’t feel much closer to understanding the man than I
Certainly Re’s ecclesiology
will win no theological prizes for its daring new formulations. He repeats
standard language about how “the church is not a democratic structure in
which the people are sovereign,” but is instead “a society instituted from
He defends a strong hierarchy:
“God, in his infinite wisdom, wanted to preserve the constitution of the
church from the variations, mutations and competitions that certainly would
not be lacking if it were not unitary and hierarchical, under the guide
of the Successor of Peter and the bishops.”
Re sounds like an ultra-montanist
in asserting, “The fact remains that the power of the pope is supreme and
thus there is not on this earth a superior instance that could judge the
operation of the Roman Pontiff.”
Yet there are also tantalizing
hints in the address that cut in a different direction.
Speaking of power in
the church, Re notes that it is limited by the “fundamental rights of the
faithful.” These rights, Re says, come not from “a concession by authority,”
but “from their baptismal condition.”
In fact, Re notes that
two of the ten principles approved by the Synod of 1967, which were to
guide the preparation of the new Code of Canon Law that appeared
in 1983, had to do with protecting the rights of the faithful from “abuses
Re praises John Paul’s
1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, in which the pope invited a study
of which aspects of the papal office are truly necessary, and which have
simply grown up over time. It was taken as an overture to other Christians,
spurring ecumenical dialogue.
In what I found the most
telling passage, Re alludes to the language of Cardinal Godfried Danneels
of Belgium at the last synod, who said the church must walk on both its
legs, a strong papacy and a strong collegiality with and among the bishops.
Given that Danneels is a champion of the moderate/reform wing of the church,
the citation is potentially significant.
None of this, however,
adds up to anything decisive. Re remains a bit of a Rorschach test, an
oracle in which Catholics may see what they want to see. Whether that malleability
is the sign of a truly open mind, or just shrewd political positioning,
time will tell.
* * *
One of the true gentlemen
of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Ambassador Mark Pellew
of Great Britain, is preparing to finish his term. On Feb. 26, he gave
a talk at the Centro Pro Unione in the Piazza Navonne on the historical
relationship between England and the Vatican. The room was stuffed with
friends and admirers.
In one sign of Pellew’s
professionalism, he delivered the talk in polished Italian, a feat of which
some of his colleagues would not be capable.
Pellew made the point
that despite the break between England and the Catholic church in the 16th
century, the rupture was never complete, and the two sides found manifold
ways to share intelligence and promote common interests over the succeeding
five centuries. His talk suggested that whatever our theological divisions
may be, in the real world people find ways to communicate.
In the Q and A that followed,
Australian Jesuit Fr. Gerry O’Collins of the Gregorian University suggested
to Pellew, an Anglican, that it is generally better for an ambassador to
the Holy See not to be Catholic. Pellew agreed, saying it tends to promote
greater independence of judgment. He said that when European ambassadors
to the Holy See meet privately, one can tell the difference. The Catholics
tend to be more deferential to the Vatican, while the non-Catholics argue
that they are in Rome to represent their governments, and push for a tougher
stance when dealing with Vatican diplomats.
The American custom is
to appoint Catholics. Reading the recent memoirs of former ambassador Raymond
Flynn (John Paul II, St. Martin’s Press), one sees the logic of
Pellew’s argument. Flynn essentially admits that although he came to Rome
as the ambassador of the Clinton administration, in many ways he became
the pope’s ambassador to Clinton.
This is unlikely to be
a problem with the current American ambassador, James Nicholson — not because
Nicholson is less Catholic than Flynn, but because his boss, George Bush,
is closer on most issues to the Vatican position.
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