National Catholic Reporter ®

March 8, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 28

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
Clergy sex abuse: an Anglo-Saxon story

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. 

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.

     Differing pressures 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.

     Differing concepts 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. 

     Minority status: 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 NCR. 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,” he conceded.

     “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 all day.

     “I expect what will come,” was the entirety of Re’s response.

     He flashed a smile and scurried off.

     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 did before.

     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 above.” 

     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 of power.”

     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.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280