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 The Word From Rome

April 11, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 33

global perspective

 As one senior Vatican official put it to me April 10, “Even if the war is over, the moral question remains.”

Vatican officials listen during symposium on pedophilia; seminary admission guidelines for homosexuals; Ratzinger may be leaving, but not yet 


An April 2-5 closed-door Vatican symposium on pedophilia, held under the auspices of the Pontifical Academy for Life, sparked some very interesting discussion on issues such as homosexuality and “zero tolerance” policies for sexual abuse. 

The session brought together eight scientists, by chance all non-Catholics, with a number of Vatican officials charged with responding to the abuse crisis. They included staff from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Religious, the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Secretariat of State.

I interviewed one of the experts, Dr. Martin Kafka, on Saturday, April 5, just after the symposium closed. Kafka practices and teaches at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Belmont, Mass., that functions as a teaching hospital for Harvard University. Kafka’s field is the treatment of men with sexual impulsivity disorders, including sex offenders. 

Kafka, the lone American expert alongside four Germans and three Canadians, said he was “impressed with the deep, genuine concern about the issue, with the willingness to be open and listen, and the proactive approach to doing the right thing.”

Despite the praise, it was clear that Kafka did not come to Rome simply to tell the Vatican what it wanted to hear.

I asked him what points were made about homosexuality, given that the Vatican is currently working on a document about the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries (more on that below).

“We described homosexuality as a risk factor,” Kafka said, noting that the majority of cases in the American crisis involve males between 14-17 victimized by adult gay priests.

Kafka emphasized, however, that this does not mean homosexuality causes abuse. “A risk factor is not a cause,” he stressed.

“The great predominance of homosexual males are in no way sexual abusers,” Kafka said. “There is, however, a subgroup at risk.”

Kafka noted that since priests who abuse minors tend to perform most such acts within five to seven years after ordination, being recently ordained is another risk factor. That does not mean that being freshly ordained “causes” abuse, any more than homosexuality.

A Vatican official who participated in some of the sessions told me April 5 that the message that homosexuality does not cause abuse was clearly received.

The Vatican official said another point that seemed to emerge clearly is that zero tolerance policies are problematic. He listed three points made by the experts: 1) the complexity of individual cases; 2) stress is a risk factor, and when a priest is stripped of his livelihood and support system, he experiences great stress; 3) it is dangerous to “let loose” an abuser priest on the community.

For these reasons, the official said, the Vatican may consider a set of instructions about the responsibility dioceses have to priests who are dismissed for sexual abuse. This would not mean a retreat from permanently removing a priest from ministry after one proven act of abuse, but it would mean the diocese could have some responsibility to support and assist that priest even after dismissal.

The seven experts in addition to Kafka were:

• Dr. Jörg M. Fegert, Medical Director of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Youth Psychiatry/Psychotherapy at the University of Ulm, Germany; 

• Dr. Karl Hanson, Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, Ottawa, Canada; 

• Dr. Hans Kröber, Director of the Institute for Forensic Psychiatry, Free University of Berlin, Germany;

• Dr. Ron Langevin, University of Toronto, Canada; 

• Dr. William Marshall, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada; 

• Dr. Friedemann Pfafflin, Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Head of the Section for Forensic Psychotherapy at the University of Ulm, President of the International Society for the Treatment of Sex Offenders, Germany; 

• Dr. Christian Reimer, Director of the Clinic for Psychosomatic illness and Psychotherapy, University of Giessen, Germany.

In addition, two American priests with experience of dealing with abuser priests were in attendance. They were: Fr. Steve Rosetti, psychologist, author and president of St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland; and Fr. Canice Connors, president of Conference of Major Superiors of Men and a former official at St. Luke’s.

* * *

An update on the document on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

Sources told NCR April 7 that the document is now in its third draft. The Congregation for Catholic Education has primary responsibility for the project, though because it has doctrinal implications, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also has an important role. 

The first draft would have left the decision about the admission of homosexual men in the hands of seminary rectors, religious superiors, and bishops. Under the weight of reaction from the CDF, however, a second draft took a more restrictive stance. The third draft is attempting to reconcile these two positions, and sources say a fourth may eventually be necessary. The process is straining the resources of the Congregation for Education, which has a small staff relative to its workload. Thus earlier expectations that the document would appear this spring now seem overly sanguine. It will be virtually impossible, sources believe, to finish the work before the traditional Roman summer doldrums.

One complication is that Vatican officials are hearing different things from different bishops. The original impetus for the document came from American prelates who argued that the Holy See had to take a strong stand against the admission of homosexuals in the wake of the U.S. sex abuse crisis. As word got out, however, other bishops, including some Americans, have expressed opposition. 

“They’re saying they don’t want to drive the problem underground and make being gay a clandestine thing in the priesthood,” one source told NCR April 5. “They feel it’s better to have it out in the open.”

Another factor driving the project is the personal interest of John Paul II. A source told NCR he has asked the leadership of the Congregation for Catholic Education twice about its progress. Though he has not given detailed instructions, the source said, the pope has expressed a generally negative view about admitting homosexuals to the priesthood.

A Vatican official who attended the pedophilia symposium felt the comments made there might help delay, or even derail, the document. He predicted it could be “dead in the water.”

The Union of Superiors General, a Rome-based umbrella group for men’s religious communities in the Catholic Church, will meet May 6, and they hope to provide some input to the Congregation for Education on the issue.

In the search for models of how to approach this delicate subject, one Rome source pointed me to a confidential 1999 report by a committee of the German bishops conference. He argued that this document, the product of a two-year study, could provide the basis for further reflection within the Vatican. Under certain conditions, it permits the admission of homosexual candidates.

The report was never officially issued, but was leaked to the German press and published informally. A spokesperson for the German conference, Stefanie Rotermann, told me April 9 that the guidelines are for the bishops’ “internal application.” The document drew the following conclusions.

(1) Permission to admit a homosexual candidate can be considered if all the following criteria are met: 

• The candidate is aware of his sexual orientation and has discussed it with the compassionate and just God;

• He possesses the stability to handle the burdens and temptations that can be expected;

• He can keep the intimate sphere of his sexuality separate from his ministerial activity;

• He has in practical contexts (community life, school etc.) shown and experienced that he can deal with challenges of both intimacy and distance in ways suitable to the situation;

• He can ensure convincingly that he has lived a chaste life long enough that he can “control” his impulses and desires; 

• There is evidence of a mature relationship with the church, with the bishop and other authorities, and a sense of responsibility shaped by sincere obedience. This shows up above all in the fact that he shows sincerity and openness in his training towards the responsible persons.

(2) Permission may not be considered if one of the following criteria is present: 

• The candidate shows signs of pedophilia or ephebophilia; 

• His homosexuality is connected with personality disorders (e.g. narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and asociality);

• There is clear evidence that the candidate participates in homosexual practices; 

• The candidate shows an excessive need to speak about his sexual identity and to persuade others to accept his condition;

• He speaks in public about homosexuality, has the tendency to spread his convictions, or is not ready to give up his affiliation with homosexual groups;

• His lifestyle is conspicuous, either by inappropriate physical contact or by clothes, hygiene and articles (e.g. pictures, magazines), where his inclination becomes clearly evident;

• He is not ready to avoid meeting places for homosexuals (such as bars, discos, and baths);

• He is dependent on sexual relations for “relaxation” and/or “strength” for 

his work;

• The topic of sexuality is located so much in the center of his attention that he can hardly master the problems facing him;

• He shows a lack of understanding for people who have trouble with homosexuality and gives them no consideration.

The full text of this report, for those who read German, may be found at

* * *

Attempts by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See to promote the American view of the war in Iraq, and now its aftermath, continue to be energetic. On Wednesday, April 9, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, was in Rome for meetings with Vatican officials. 

Bolton saw Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and who has publicly opposed the Iraq war; Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome and head of the Italian bishops conference; and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister. Each meeting lasted for approximately one hour. Bolton then held a press conference before an invited group of largely Italian and American journalists at the embassy.

For Italians, the big news was that Bolton met with Ruini rather than Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and hence the pope’s “prime minister.” Sodano has been sharply critical of the U.S.-led war, while Ruini has opposed the war but has also criticized anti-American tendencies in the European peace movement. 

Strictly speaking, the meeting with Ruini was puzzling from the point of view of protocol, and some church-watchers felt it was poor form on Ruini’s part — a kind of upstaging of Sodano on his own turf. Bolton went out of his way at the press conference to praise Ruini as someone with “knowledge and familiarity on some of these issues.”

Listening to Bolton, one had the impression that the U.S. strategy vis-à-vis the Vatican is to try to forget about the dispute over the war, and to concentrate on where things go from here.

I asked if Bolton had detected any softening in the Vatican’s position on the war, given that the Holy See has been a leading center of opposition. Bolton replied that he rejected my characterization of the Vatican’s position. The Holy See expressed concerns, he said, but they recognize that it is up to the civil authority to make the decision. Vatican officials respect, Bolton said, the sense of conscience with which President Bush made this particular call.

Our common interest with the Vatican now, he said, is to look to the future. Concretely, that means installing a government that respects the will of the Iraqi people, making sure that a humanitarian disaster is avoided in Iraq, eliminating weapons of mass destruction and moving forward towards a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. 

On the humanitarian front, Bolton said the Vatican had offered some concrete suggestions as to how aid might be delivered. This is a pressing problem, since the destruction of the Ba’ath Party has meant the destruction of the only instrument Iraq had for getting supplies from the Food-for-Oil program to its people. Churches and mosques, Bolton said, may have a role to play in creating a substitute delivery system. He vowed to relay the suggestions to Washington, so that people on the ground can ultimately make the call.

While the Bush administration may want to forgive and forget, sources tell me the Vatican is not so eager to forget their objections now that things seemed more or less settled on the ground. Certainly the Holy See wants to work with the United States on post-war issues, especially a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and it’s also true that some in the curia believe the pope’s anti-war line was exploited by groups with a completely different agenda from the church. At the same time, there is a wide sense in the Vatican that the U.S. decision to go to war without a United Nations mandate, and without having exhausted all peaceful means of achieving disarmament and reform, was dangerous. As one senior Vatican official put it to me April 10, “Even if the war is over, the moral question remains.”

On other matters, Bolton was asked about recent administration statements to the effect that Iran and Syria may also be a threat.

“We are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq, that the presence of weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interest,” he said. 

Bolton rejected suggestions that the Iraq war will aggravate the relationship between the West and Islam. “The best advocates of this decision in the Arab world will ultimately be the Iraqi people,” he said.

Finally, Bolton was asked why the United States was willing to go to war to enforce U.N. resolutions Iraq has defied, but has never shown similar resolution on Israel.

“I don’t accept that there is a double standard,” he said. “It has been a cornerstone of American policy under both Republican and Democratic presidents that resolutions 242 and 338 need to be implemented. We’ve never wavered from that.”

* * *

The thousand-and-one ways in which the war has created divisions was brought home for me recently by a reader who shared correspondence between a pilgrimage group in the United States and a famous French monastery. 

A member of the group had written the monastery just before war broke out asking for permission to visit, and received a startling response.

“The possibility of this voyage depends … on Mr. George Bush and his government,” the abbey’s guestmaster wrote. “If he declares war, we will not be able to receive you. You should know that all of France, with a few exceptions, is hostile to the war. We regret seeing a growing anti-American sentiment, which makes us sad.”

The letter went on to say that “everyone knows” the pretext for war offered by Bush and England’s Tony Blair is false, that the real issue is taking control of Iraqi petroleum and doing the bidding of Israel’s Ariel Sharon, who is “the real author of this affair.”

Shocked, someone got in touch with the abbot of the monastery, who hurriedly replied that the letter expressed the private sentiments of the elderly guestmaster, and that the Americans would indeed be welcome. The abbot said that the guestmaster’s inhospitable response was a special surprise because the monk “has always been exemplary.”

War claims many casualties, not all of them on the battlefield. This minor contretemps, illustrating how diplomatic and political strains can filter even into the church, is proof of the point.

* * *

The prominent Vatican writer for Rome’s daily Il Messagero, Orazio Petrosillo, recently published a crystal-ball piece suggesting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, is about to step down, and that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, is his likely successor. Such speculation has been around for a long time, and as far as Schönborn is concerned, a spokesman immediately announced that the report is “utterly without foundation.” 

Petrosillo is correct often enough that people pay attention, although his record on such matters is far from spotless. There have been signs that Ratzinger is winding down. The secretary of his congregation, Tarcisio Bertone, recently was named the archbishop of Genoa, while his longtime personal aide Josef Clemens recently became the under-secretary of the Congregation for Religious. It’s a time-honored Vatican tradition for cardinals to make sure their key lieutenants are “taken care of” before the patron exits the stage.

Yet Ratzinger remains a vital presence, and we got a reminder of that April 9, when he appeared at an afternoon roundtable at Opus Dei’s Santa Croce University. The topic was the recent “doctrinal note” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the role of Catholic politicians in public life. That document insisted that Catholic politicians must be “coherent” in basing policy choices on their values. It is never licit, for example, for Catholic politicians to support policies destructive of life such as abortion.

Ratzinger was joined by former Italian president Francesco Cossiga, and a number of other luminaries from Italy’s political culture. The moderator was an American Opus Dei priest, Fr. Robert Gahl.

Despite the VIP lineup, Ratzinger was obviously the star of the show. Unfortunately the event did not allow for debate, so Ratzinger gave only a brief statement. It was typically articulate and clear, most of it delivered in Ratzinger’s classic professorial pose — eyes rolled up, looking off into the distance, as if he were developing his thought process out loud.

Ratzinger said it is the church’s constant teaching that politics belongs within the sphere of reason. Catholicism recognizes, he said, a distinction between the politics and faith. Ratzinger quoted what St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said to a pope: “Don’t think you are the successor of Constantine, but of Peter. Your law must not be the Code of Justinian, but the Sacred Scripture.”

At the same time, Ratzinger said, the doctrinal note aims to avoid a “mutilation of reason” which would limit the capacity of the human intellect to only those things that can be empirically verified and falsified. Thus thought would become a merely technical exercise rather than a search for truth. When that happens, Ratzinger said, society is made vulnerable to “the strongest current of the moment, which is sometimes irrational.” 

The church, Ratzinger said, thus excludes both theocracy and positivism. 

It would have been interesting to hear Ratzinger respond to the other panelists, since at least two took positions he probably would have challenged. Cossiga raised doubts about whether the church can really insist divorce should be illegal, as it did in a famous Italian referendum in 1974. Even Catholicism, Cossiga said, allows the so-called “Pauline privilege” for dissolving a marriage. Prominent editorialist Ernesto Galli della Loggia, meanwhile, struck a libertarian note, arguing that the church does not always have to try to legally ban whatever it morally disapproves.

The buzz on the way out was that it was too bad Ratzinger did not get another turn at bat. Such moments reflect the undeniable fact that, whatever one makes of his ideas, Ratzinger is one of the most authoritative voices on the Catholic stage today. When he does eventually go, he will be a hard act to follow.

* * *

I had the pleasure this week of interviewing three bishops from San Francisco — Roman Catholic Archbishop William Levada, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony, and Episcopalian Bishop William Swing. The three men are on an ecumenical pilgrimage across Europe that will take them to Canterbury, Rome and Istanbul, the historical centers of their three branches of Christianity.

The three met Pope John Paul II in an April 7 audience. I sat down with them immediately afterwards at the Residenza Paolo VI, just off St. Peter’s Square.

It was a delight to see the obvious affection these three men have for each other, especially since, as Swing put it, “our forefathers were at each other’s throats.” It is a measure of the ecumenical progress of the years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

I also had the opportunity meet Bishop Ignatius Wang, Levada’s new auxiliary, who is the first bishop of Chinese ancestry in the United States. Wang’s family is from Beijing, and they have been Christians for a staggering 12 generations. Wang was part of Levada’s pilgrimage group. Swing brought his wife Mary.

Levada made the point that there has been a recent cooling in ecumenical enthusiasm, since theological dialogues seem to have run into a number of roadblocks and people are impatient for full unity. While we work out our differences, Levada said, people need models of interim steps that are within reach. This trip, fill of common prayer and witness, provides one such model.

Metropolitan Anthony said the trip would help form an ecumenical consciousness.

“For me, the greatest significance of this undertaking is that when I look at these two men, I see brothers, and not just on a basic human level, but brother bishops,” he said.

One sign was immediate. When Levada presented John Paul with a contribution of $50,000 for papal charities, a well-known Orthodox layman in the group, George Marcus, immediately vowed to match the amount.

A point of tension on the trip has been inter-communion. While Episcopalians permit access to their communion services for members of other Christian churches, both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions have more restrictive rules about giving and receiving communion. As they travel, each member of the party is following the discipline of his own church.

Metropolitan Anthony said he was coping with the discomfort of not being able to participate in the other’s Eucharist by “asking for God’s forgiveness at Roman Catholic services.”

“I swore an oath as an Orthodox bishop, and I will uphold that oath,” he said. “The Eucharist is not a means to unity but a result of it. In the meantime, as someone who desires Christian unity with all my heart, I will strive to work out our differences.”

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

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