National Catholic Reporter ®

June 21, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 43

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Why Rome’s not warm to “zero tolerance”, Belgium’s sex abuse policies no precedent; yes, Virginia, Jesuits have liturgy conferences; then, there’s “Conclave”

The bottom line on where things stand in Rome, I believe, is that Vatican officials find themselves torn between two impulses. 


In the middle of a white-hot news story, rumors breed like potato blight. This is especially so when hundreds of journalists congregate in one spot to follow some big event. Waves of alleged breaks in the story crash through the pressroom, creating overwhelming pressure to get the scoop. 

     Last weekend’s meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas provides a classic case in point. On Saturday, the second day of deliberations, I filed a story for NCR’s web coverage, citing Vatican sources to the effect that there are serious doubts in Rome about the wisdom of the “zero tolerance” approach. The story was based on interviews that morning with Vatican officials, though it largely repeated concerns that had already been voiced several times by people in and around the Holy See.

     NCR publisher Tom Fox, who was on hand in Dallas, naturally wanted to give the story as much exposure as possible. He arranged with MSNBC to do a live interview the moment we posted the story, as I did with Sam Donaldson’s radio program. With that, the story was out, and it galvanized attention. For the next several hours I did little other than answer phone calls from colleagues wanting to know what to report about Vatican reaction to the bishops’ sex abuse policy.

     Every phone call seemed to juice up my story just a little bit more. First, someone thought I had reported that zero tolerance was “dead in Rome.” Then a reporter said he was trying to track down the “new Vatican statement” on zero tolerance, which of course did not exist. The final stage in this game of phone tag came when a reporter from a major TV network said he wanted to follow up my report that the pope had personally denounced zero tolerance.

     I spent most of the day peeling back the layers of invention. 

     Complicating matters was that some people confused the Internet story I filed with last week’s version of the “Word from Rome” column, which quoted Cardinal Jan Schotte of Belgium on the American situation. For the record, the news story that was the basis of the furor can be found at I have also filed a brief story on who in the Vatican will review the norms and how long it might take.

     The bottom line on where things stand in Rome, I believe, is that Vatican officials find themselves torn between two impulses. On the one hand, there is enormous concern for the crisis in the American church, and a strong desire to support the U.S. bishops. On the other, there are also reservations about some elements of the new policy. They include:

  •  The justice of a “zero tolerance” approach. While no one opposes removing from ministry those who commit sexual violence against children, the definition of sexual abuse in the bishops’ document is more sweeping, including potentially ambiguous physical acts, as well as even non-physical “interactions.” In theory, a priest who once handed a copy of Playboy to a 17-year-old high school senior could be considered guilty of sexual abuse. Is permanent removal from ministry the appropriate penalty for such a lapse in judgment? 

  • The role of the bishop. Should a bishop be obligated to report every accusation of sexual abuse against a priest to the civil authorities, even if it’s the priest himself who comes to the bishop to discuss a problem in his past? Some in Rome believe such a policy will alter the nature of the bishop’s office, who would no longer be a spiritual father and brother to his priests, but an agent of the police.

  • Confidentiality. Should the church turn over all of its documents to the civil authorities when asked to do so, or should there be some zone of confidentiality? In part this is a concern about the ability of a priest to protect his “good name” when accusations are made. 
     Given the overwhelming public consensus behind the “get tough” approach in the United States, it may be difficult for some American Catholics to understand these reservations. The tendency may be to see it as typical Vatican recalcitrance or obstructionism. My sense, however, is that these concerns are shared by some observers who are far from being Vatican acolytes. I had lunch this week, for example, with a professor of moral theology at one of Rome’s major pontifical universities, who is deeply disappointed by what he sees as the bishops’ surrender to an “off with their heads” demand for vengeance. He told me he will have trouble saying Mass as long as this policy remains.

     My point is not to endorse his perspective. It is simply to note that outside the cauldron of media pressure in the States, there is more room for such critical views to breathe.

     Vatican officials realize too that the American bishops are not setting policy just for themselves. They are creating a precedent that will be widely studied around the world, and whatever response the Holy See gives will be taken as a green light or red light for the development of similar polices elsewhere. For that reason also, I’m sure the review will be thorough.

* * *

     Speaking of Schotte, one of his points reported in last week’s column concerned the disclosure of church documents to the police. He told me that in Belgium the bishops had fought off such demands.

     Intrigued, I followed up by contacting a spokesperson for the Belgian bishops, Toon Osaer. He tells me that Schotte was confused, because in the five cases that Osaer is aware of in Belgium involving priests accused of sexual abuse of a minor, the church had to turn over its files each time. What Schotte may have been thinking of, Osaer said, is that the church resisted demands to pay damages to victims of sexual abuse on the grounds that the bishop is not a parish priest’s “employer.”

     I happened to bump into Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium at a Jesuit liturgy conference in Rome June 18, and he told me the same thing, emphasizing that the Belgian bishops have provided their records to the police. 

     Belgium does not, therefore, provide an example of a bishops’ conference that has refused to cooperate with civil authorities.

* * *

     That was not a misprint above: There actually is a Jesuit liturgy conference going on this week in Rome, the first of its kind in the order’s 468 years. For insiders this news will draw smiles, since Jesuits have long been known as disasters where liturgy is concerned. The old saying “lost like a Jesuit in Holy Week” is one way of making the point.

     Yet there have been, and are, some superb Jesuit liturgists, no one more so than the impresario of this week’s affair, Fr. Keith Pecklers. An American of the New York province, Pecklers teaches both at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University as well as the Pontifical Liturgical Institute, sponsored by the Benedictines. He is one of the most dynamic young scholars in Rome, someone I believe is destined to have a profound impact on the church.

     On the opening day of the event, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, led the liturgy. He quipped that bringing so many Jesuits together to talk about liturgy (some 120 from 43 countries) might well be Padre Pio’s first miracle since his canonization.

     Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, a specialist on Eastern liturgies who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, flung down the gauntlet to his confreres the next morning. He challenged Jesuits to foster a communal liturgical life centered on the Eucharist and daily prayer, despite the long Jesuit tradition of private prayer in order to leave members free to pursue their mission whenever and wherever necessary. It is true that Ignatius did not have a developed liturgical vision, Taft argued, but this is because he came along at a time when ritualism had made an empty shell of the church’s public ceremonies. (The 16th century was an era, Taft ruefully pointed out, in which St. Frances de Sales actually took a rosary with him when called upon to assist at a public Mass, “so as not to lose valuable prayer time.”)

     Those who know Taft, and I’m privileged to call him a friend, cherish his blunt, salty style. A few typical Taftisms from the talk:

     “Liturgy is the very mouth of the church, not just its lipstick.”

      “The early Egyptian anchorites prayed while they worked too. What Ignatius did was to make the work apostolic, not basket weaving.”

     “Ignatius thought that when it came to liturgy, Jesuits would just do the right thing without rules. Over 450 years of history have shown how delusionally sanguine that idea was.”

     Taft is intolerant of anything that seems to him like laziness or special pleading. During question and answer time, someone suggested that in the inevitable tension between common prayer and leaving Jesuits free to pursue their work, a daily community Mass can at best have only a “representative” flavor. Lots of Jesuits, in other words, won’t show up.

     Taft’s answer? Start getting out of bed at 5:00 am again, and lots more folks will find the time.

     I wouldn’t say that he convinced everyone. Still, the prolonged ovation that greeted his talk suggested his call did not fall on entirely deaf ears.

     Pecklers had arranged for Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium to give an address the first night of the conference, and his dense one hour-plus presentation produced mixed reviews. Some found it refreshingly substantive and intellectually demanding; others thought Danneels was all over the map, meandering rather than making clear points; still others thought his overall approach was too traditional, too abstract and “high.”

     The last view found voice the next morning in Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss, an Indian who is one of the world’s foremost Catholic theologians on inter-religious issues. During a panel discussion after Taft’s talk, he said Danneels represented “only one theological position in the church.”

     “It is just not acceptable for us in India,” Amaladoss flatly said, adding, “I hope it will not be the only basis for our discussions and conclusions at this meeting.”

     As of this writing, it is too early to know whether these sparks will catch fire and produce a real debate. I’ll report more from the liturgy conference next week.

     Whatever one makes of Danneels’ talk, I believe he remains one of the most interesting figures in the Catholic hierarchy. He is cagey enough to be aware of how topics such as liturgy play in the left/right debates that paralyze so much of the public conversation in the church, yet sophisticated enough to refuse to play by those rules. Thus he began his address saying that he knows anyone who speaks on liturgy these days enters a “magnetic field of emotions.” Everyone wants to know, Danneels said, whether one is progressive or conservative.

     “I will try to be both,” Danneels said. “So hold your emotions in check.”

     He lived up to his own billing, since the talk reflected great affection for the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, yet an ability to be critical of them as well. Change in Catholic prayer and worship must be a result of “slow and steady” experience, he warned, not something “dreamed up at the desk of liturgists.” 

     He also indicated that for him the jury is still out on the use of inclusive language, meaning the use of non-gender specific terms such as “people” instead of “man.”

     “In fact the question remains,” Danneels said, “whether we are being faced with a radical cultural change or not and whether or not this has religious implications.”

     I said hello to Danneels, reminding him that we had last met at the Synod of Bishops in September 2001. I then informed him that in my new book on the next conclave, he is on my “Top 20” list of candidates to be pope.

     “Perverse,” he said to me, squinting with disapproval. “These books are perverse.”

     I think he was kidding.

* * *

     There is much more I’d like to cover this week, from my experience in the scalding sun during the Padre Pio canonization on June 16, to an interview two weeks ago with Nobel Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug, who was in Rome for the World Food Summit. I also recently lunched with a Japanese doctoral student named Kiyoshi Seko, who has some interesting ideas about how Catholic theology might just be awakened from its dogmatic slumber. All this to come.

     My new book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday) went on sale June 18. If you want to find it on-line, you can go to

     Maybe I should add a blurb: Called “perverse” by Cardinal Godfried Danneels!

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

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