National Catholic Reporter ®

April 26, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 35

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Running the 24/7 news cycle marathon;
Jimmy Breslin’s advice; cutting the tour

I must say that I’ve earned a new respect this week for my colleagues at CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, National Public Radio, and other broadcast outlets. . . . this round-the-clock pace is a matter of daily routine. Say what you will about the limits of broadcast news, its penchant for banality or its pressure for instant analysis, but these people work for a living.


I almost feel sheepish writing a “Word from Rome” this week, since it seems all I have been doing the past 72 hours is pouring out a torrent of words from Rome for various media outlets covering the Vatican summit with the American cardinals.

     Today’s ever-shortening news cycles create a demand for commentary even when there is, quite frankly, very little to say. For example, I was in Chicago when the news broke that the pope was calling the American cardinals to Rome, in a meeting with the editors of US Catholic magazine. My cell phone buzzed within minutes with a call from a radio program, asking what I knew. 

     “Nothing,” I said.

     Their response? 

     “Great! Let’s go live.”

     Yet I must say that I’ve earned a new respect this week for my colleagues at CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, National Public Radio, and other broadcast outlets. As I staggered bleary-eyed and exhausted from one interview to another, I realized that for people such as Fox’s Greg Burke, or CNN’s Alessio Vinci, or NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli, this round-the-clock pace is a matter of daily routine. Say what you will about the limits of broadcast news, its penchant for banality or its pressure for instant analysis, but these people work for a living.

     As the curtain dropped on the summit, the obvious question was whether the event was a success or a failure.

     As a reporter, it’s not my business to draw that conclusion. But what I can do is identify three aspects that struck me as noteworthy, leaving it to others to comment on their significance.

     First, like most journalists, I was impressed by the frank manner in which most of the participants responded to the press. (I’m referring here to those bishops who made themselves available; some, most notably Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, were missing in action).

     In the press briefing on April 23, for example, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was asked about homosexuals in the priesthood. Here was his full response:

     “I’d like to acknowledge that one of the difficulties we face in seminary life and recruiting is made obvious when there is a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexual men think twice before entering, thinking they may be harassed. After the papal visitation in the 1980s, our seminaries did an awful lot to be sure we are living up to the highest standards of the church. It is an on-going struggle to be sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men, that the candidates we receive are healthy in every possible way, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Most seminaries are working vigorously to provide such an environment.”

     Of course, the question of linkage between homosexuality and the abuse crisis is debatable. But what’s remarkable about Gregory’s response is that it is the first time a senior American prelate has publicly acknowledged what close observers of the Catholic scene have long known — that there are a disproportionate number of homosexuals in seminaries and in the priesthood. 

     Not long ago, saying this out loud could get people into trouble. After Fr. Donald Cozzens wrote The Changing Face of the Priesthood, in which he made this very point, he became a lightning rod for controversy. (Though now every news show in America knows his name, one sign that telling the truth brings its own rewards). Now, Cozzens’ message has been validated by Gregory on the most public stage imaginable. Under the weight of the current crisis, in other words, some old taboos in Catholic public life are disintegrating.

     Another example. I asked Cardinal Francis George of Chicago whether the pope’s emphasis in his address April 23 on “the power of Christian conversion” amounted to rejection of a “one strike and you’re out” policy. It was an especially striking remark since a few sentences before the pope had, for the first time, referred to clerical sexual abuse as a crime.

     George admitted that he too was puzzled by the pope’s choice of words. “I don’t know where that leaves us,” he said, adding that the cardinals were likewise divided on how strong a policy to adopt.

     I can’t recall the last time a cardinal publicly threw up his hands about a papal statement in quite that fashion.

     Later I tracked down Bishop William Skylstad, vice-president of the bishops’ conference, to ask him about this point. (Actually I called my colleague Jim Bitterman of CNN, who I knew was standing next to Skylstad right after an interview, and Jim passed him a cell phone). 

     Skylstad said the bishops are moving toward a “one strike” policy, but the details will have to be worked out in Dallas in June. He added that there is still debate over whether such a policy should apply to all cases, or just new ones, and whether it should apply to all kinds of abuse, or just classic pedophilia.

     Once again, I was struck by the open way he answered questions about supposedly secret proceedings. Normally I’d have to work hard, dancing around such a question a number of times, before I got the answer. This time, the bishops seemed to realize that the only way out of their fix is honesty.

     Once that genie’s out of the bottle, it’s awfully hard to put it back in.

     A second striking element of the summit was the way its final communiqué took sides in the argument between left and right over how to analyze the sex abuse crisis. 

     Since the stories first began to break, liberal Catholics have been arguing that the roots of the problem lie in mandatory clerical celibacy, the refusal to ordain women (both measures which limit the pool of potential candidates), and a negative and repressive streak towards human sexuality in Catholic tradition. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to point the finger at doctrinal dissent, confusion on church teaching about sexual morality, and tolerance of a gay subculture in the priesthood.

     The summit ratified the conservative diagnosis, while ignoring the liberal.

     The communiqué pointed to “doctrinal issues underlying the deplorable behavior in question, and called on pastors to more vigorously promote “the correct moral teaching of the church” and to “publicly reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care.”

     Though the document did not identify homosexuality by name as a causal factor, it stated that “almost all the cases involved adolescents and there were not cases of true pedophelia.” Most of those cases involved adolescent males.

     The document proposed a papal investigation of seminaries and religious houses of formation, “giving special attention to their admission requirements and the need for them to teach Catholic moral doctrine in its integrity.” Both phrases are veiled references to the issue of homosexuality.

     It will be interesting to watch how this decision to take sides in the left/right debate plays out. If the bishops follow through in an aggressive fashion, the resulting crackdown could result in an American church further bruised and divided. It will be important to watch this aspect of the debate in Dallas in June.

     Finally, over the course of the two-day session, several cardinals and bishops told reporters that the inclusion of lay people in the decision-making process of the church was a key to long-term resolution of the crisis. George said bluntly that part of the reason bishops had made such terrible mistakes is that they were making these decisions by themselves, rather than listening to the laity.

     It was striking, therefore, that the final documents of the summit made no mention of an expanded role for laity in decisions on governance, finance or personnel. When I asked this question at the concluding press conference, Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Francis Stafford, along with Gregory, took pains to emphasize how much they support greater lay involvement. McCarrick said language about laity had been in the document at one point, but apparently got dropped in the editing process.

     The bishops seemed in earnest about a greater lay role. Still, Catholics who worry about their bishops being out of touch will perhaps be little consoled to realize that the lone reference to laity was left on the cutting room floor.

* * *

     One of the real treats in the middle of this week’s media circus was meeting Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York columnist. After the midday press briefing on April 23, I found myself in the middle of a knot of reporters asking for my quick run-down on what we had just heard. As I peeled myself away, I heard a gruff, raspy voice asking where I was going and if he could tag along. I said yes and began answering his questions without realizing I was talking to a journalistic icon.

     Breslin took it upon himself to dish out some professional advice, mostly along the lines that I should stop offering my professional expertise for free. (His actual words were considerably more colorful).

     When we arrived at a BBC truck outside the Vatican for an interview I had agreed to, the producer told me it would be a minute or two before they were ready. Breslin then shouted: “What the Hell’s going on here? My client has places to go.”

     They got me on the air post-haste.

     Breslin later offered to give me the name of an agent, though frankly I think I’d rather just have him. This is a man who knows how to get things done.

     Breslin, by the way, says he is writing a book about the sex abuse crisis, which I’m sure will be a must-read. 

* * *

     In order to make it back to Rome to cover the summit, I had to pull out of the last three dates on my lecture tour with Robert Blair Kaiser. I know that with Bob’s wit, charm, and command of the Vatican beat, our audiences didn’t suffer at all from my absence. (In a sense Bob even managed to bilocate, since La Stampa, one of Italy’s largest daily papers, reported that the fact that both he and I had returned to Rome was a sign of the importance of the summit in the American press). 

     Still, I would like to take this chance to express my regrets to Columbia University’s journalism program, to St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I’ll try to find a way to make up for it.

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

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