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 The Word From Rome

July 16, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 47

global perspective


"People, for the most part, leave the Catholic church for experiential and material reasons. It's a pastoral problem rather than theological-doctrinal."

from "Pastoral Response of the Church to Other Groups and Religious Movements,"
a document of the Peruvian bishops' conference dated Dec. 16, 2003

Reporting from Peru; Clergy sex abuse reports rock Europe


Herman Melville once described Lima as the "strangest, saddest city in the world." Having spent this past week in Peru, I'm not sure about sad, but strange it is -- in the sense of mysterious, singular, and therefore endlessly fascinating.

Its recent history has been harrowing. According to an accounting by the country's "Commission for Truth and Reconciliation," some 70,000 people died here between 1980 and 1992, the years of the Shining Path terrorist violence. A little over half of these deaths came at the hands of the terrorists, while 37 percent were carried out by the army, paramilitary groups, and local committees of self-defense.

The Catholic church lived the trauma in first person. Perhaps as a result, the Peruvian church, at least at the thinking level, appears divided between a progressive wing associated with liberation theology, and a conservative/traditionalist Catholicism that sees itself as custodian of the country's deep popular faith. These divisions appear to run through the church at many levels, including the bishops' conference.

I got a taste of all this while moving up and down the country. I attended Mass in the Lima cathedral amid great pomp and circumstance, as well as a Mass for 20 schoolchildren celebrated by a circuit-riding priest in the tiny Andean village of Chinchagosa, where the air gets awfully thin at 4,000 meters. I went to farms and factories, spoke to politicians and bishops, as well as people who cut hair and run laundries.

What follows are some of the fruits of those experiences, which I hope hint at Peru's complex and rich story.

* * *

Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani
To say that Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima is a controversial figure is a bit like saying that Michael Jordan was a decent basketball player. True so far as it goes, but it hardly begins to capture reality. Even by the occasionally ugly standards of clerical politics, the tempests swirling around Cipriani, the world's first Opus Dei cardinal, seem almost surreal.

To his critics, Cipriani embodies an authoritarian model of leadership and a pietistic conception of the church, making him the ultimate anti-matter to liberation theology, the current that sought to align the Catholic church with progressive movements for social change. To his supporters, Cipriani is a beacon of moral and doctrinal clarity, a man of fidelity and evangelical zeal, who is living a sort of virtual martyrdom at the hands of his enemies both inside and outside the church.

That polarity makes Cipriani a love 'em or hate 'em figure -- and those who dislike this 61-year-old with an occasionally salty tongue really dislike him.

Case in point: Cipriani claims that he has been the object a black-bag campaign hatched by forces within the Catholic church, including some of his fellow Peruvian bishops. In an exclusive July 11 interview at his residence in Lima, he claimed this dirty tricks campaign, which pivots on a bungled forgery, was the fruit of "16 years of lies" from his ecclesiastical adversaries.

Here's the short version of a very long and complicated story.

In 2001, the then-Minister of Justice in the Peruvian government, Fernando Olivera, secretly carried three letters to the Vatican, one allegedly written by Cipriani, the others by the papal nuncio, or ambassador, Archbishop Rino Passigato. Cipriani's letter was addressed to the infamous Vladimiro Montesinos, head of the security forces under former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. (Fujimori is in exile in Japan for his role in a corruption scandal, while Montesinos is in prison). The letter purportedly showed Cipriani asking for the "elimination and incineration" of secret videotapes showing him with Montesinos. The other letters purported to show the nuncio thanking Montesinos for a contribution of $120,000 and asking for more money.

Cipriani is widely seen in Peru as an enemy of President Alejandro Toledo, and hence in the eyes of most observers Olivera was dispatched to Rome with the letters as part of an effort to discredit Cipriani, perhaps so that he would be removed.

The letters, however, turned out to be fakes. They were apparently concocted using scanned copies of letterhead stolen from the offices of the Peruvian bishops' conference.

The case rivals the Watergate burglary both in comic incompetence and in explosive potential.

"There are bishops involved," Cipriani said bluntly, describing himself as "completely convinced" that the attacks against him came from senior levels inside the church. He declined to name names, but described in detail how he believes the operation was carried out.

In another twist, Cipriani also asserts that the Vatican is trying to block the full truth from emerging about the case in order to prevent scandal, but predicts they will be unable to impede the state's attorney.

For the first time, Cipriani also revealed in the July 11 interview that the 2001 episode was not his first experience of faked letters. He claims that in 2000, a false letter was manufactured with his signature, this time addressed to the Vatican's Secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano. It contained charges of immoral conduct against two other Peruvian bishops. Cipriani said the faked signature on the 2000 letter was in the same handwriting as the letters of 2001 currently under investigation.

My story on the affair can be found here: Peru's cardinal says he is victim of smear campaign.

It should be noted that many of the controversies surrounding Cipriani, as is often the case with church politics, seem to be most intensely followed within a fairly narrow band of ecclesiastical and political insiders. According to one recent poll, the cardinal has a 52 percent approval rating, far higher, for example, than the country's embattled president.

* * *

Despite the cachet of being the first Opus Dei cardinal, Cipriani yields pride of place as the world's most famous Peruvian Catholic to Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, whose 1971 book A Theology of Liberation gave one of the most important theological currents of the 20th century its name.

I spoke to Cipriani about Gutierrez, who left the clergy of the Lima archdiocese to join the Dominicans weeks after Cipriani arrived as archbishop. Today, Gutierrez spends part of each year teaching at the University of Notre Dame.

Cipriani described a conversation between the two men in his residence shortly before Gutierrrez left.

"He came in to see me, saying, here's a paper of your predecessor approving my going to the Dominicans," Cipriani said. "I said, well, let's have a talk before you leave, because when I get in touch with St. Peter in the next life, maybe he will ask me, 'What about Gutierrez?' I said, you have done lots of harm in religious congregations. I would appreciate it if you would rethink your theology. … If you move one millimeter, the church will move one kilometer.

"I said, I'm putting all the responsibility for your theology on your soul. It's in your hands. I know you're moving away, but I'm sure you are not a Dominican."

Asked what he meant by that, Cipriani said Gutierrez is "faking" his identity as a Dominican in order to escape his control.

In fairness, people close to Gutierrez say that while he was indeed motivated to get out from under Cipriani's authority, he nevertheless is sincere about his Dominican vocation. He took his formation in France seriously, these observers say, and sees the charism of the Order of Preachers as a good fit with his own sense of mission.

Cipriani said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is still waiting for the Peruvian bishops' conference to obtain a written revision of Gutierrez's positions, but some bishops lack the "guts" to move forward.

"Some of the people in the conference were followers of Gutierrez," he said. "It's quite difficult to find people willing to confront hard situations."

Cipriani said that in his view, the challenge posed by liberation theology remains.

"They created a system of pastoral work that is now inside of the church, and not only in Peru," he said. "Desacralization, making social work the first thing to do, criticizing the magisterium, involving priests in politics … It's a whole system, a parallel magisterium to the real magisterium. … This way of doing the church, the pastoral work, is still going on and is quite difficult to change."

* * *

Cipriani and I also talked about the crisis at the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1997, when terrorists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known by its Spanish initials MRTA, held a group of hostages for four months. The standoff ended with a raid that led to the deaths of 14 of the hostage-takers.

Cipriani was the principal mediator between the MRTA and the Fujimori government, and publicly wept in the aftermath of the raid. Later it was rumored that he had injected himself as a publicity stunt, and even that he smuggled listening devices into the embassy on behalf of the army.

Cipriani denied these charges, saying he was involved for one reason: the Vatican asked him.

"I continued as a representative of the Holy See, approved by the Secretariat of State," Cipriani said.

He claimed that a friend advised him to obtain something in writing confirming his appointment, but the nuncio told him the Holy See would not produce such a document.

"This is all dark. What was Cipriani doing there? Why was he involved? What happened? That's the Holy See. It would be very easy for them to say, make a report and make it public, but they don't want that," he said.

Cipriani also denied taking anything into the embassy for the government.

"Once Fujimori told me, here is a guitar," Cipriani said. "It can be used as a transmitter. It works this way. I said to him, this fellow to whom you're giving the guitar doesn't play the guitar, so I'm not taking it in. He was clever, he understood immediately, he said forget it, don't worry. Two days after, I saw the guitar inside."

Cipriani claimed that the rumors about his smuggling devices were planted by Montesinos, because Cipriani had urged Fujimori to get rid of Montesinos.

"When this thing finished that way, I broke," Cipriani said.

"I think in real humility that it was heroic, really. I risked my life day by day going in and coming out."

* * *

One of the issues I wanted to explore in Peru is the explosive growth of what many Latin American Catholics call "the sects," meaning evangelical Protestant movements.

What everyone seems to agree upon is that the growth is real, but attempts to account for it vary widely. After a week talking to Peruvians from all points of view, I have come to see explaining the growth of the evangelicals as an ink blot test for whatever one thinks is wrong with Catholicism, with Latin America, or with the most important exterior influence here, the United States.

First, the growth.

According to an internal Dec. 16, 2003, document of the Peruvian bishops' conference titled "Pastoral Response of the Church to Other Groups and Religious Movements," the growth from 1990 to 2003 was dramatic. In 1990, the document reports, there were 1,422,000 Peruvians in one or another non-Catholic Christian denomination. The most numerous were the so-called "evangelical churches," a catchall category for a wide variety of Christian denominations ranging from the Assemblies of God to the Anglicans. There are also large pockets of the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. In 2002, the estimate is that the total is 3,415,000, meaning that the non-Catholics doubled over less than 10 years.

I spoke on July 12 with Oscar Amat y León, a religious sociologist in Peru and a pastor of the Peruvian Evangelical Church. He confirmed these numbers, saying that in 1993 the so-called "sects" represented 7.3 percent of the population, whereas today they are 13.69 percent. He said that the rate of growth is slowing, and that he anticipates it will level off at around 20 percent of the Peruvian population. That's an enormously rapid transformation for a country that as recently as 1972 was, at least according to the official census, 97.5 percent Catholic.

What explains it?

Here accounts diverge. Conservative Peruvian Catholics will sometimes blame liberation theology, arguing that by shifting the focus from pastoral service to social activism, the Catholic church in effect created a vacuum that the evangelicals filled. Progressives, on the other hand, sometimes blame the authoritarian power structures of the church that breed distance from the people.

Peruvian journalist Federico Prieto Celi gave me another reading July 12. He theorized that the growth is in part linked to conscious American policy. He cited a famous remark of Theodore Roosevelt to the effect that, "I believe it will be long and difficult to absorb these countries into the sphere of the United States as long as they remain Catholic." In a similar vein, he pointed to a 1969 essay by Nelson Rockefeller: "The Catholic church has stopped being a trusted ally of the United States, and on the contrary is transforming itself into a danger because it raises the consciousness of the people. It's recommended to give support to fundamentalist Christian groups and churches of the sort of Moon and the Hare Krishna."

On the other hand, the evangelicals themselves bitterly dispute the idea that they're local branches of an American franchise. Rafael Goto, for example, a pastor in the Pilgrim Church in Peru, told me July 12 that his denomination actually split into two precisely over this question of nationalism, and it has been the branch that has rejected in principle all foreign support that has experienced the most dramatic growth.

Goto offered yet another theory. He said that as Peru is undergoing, in fits and starts, a process of democratization and the construction of a civil society, some Peruvians find themselves more at home in churches that are themselves more democratic and participatory in governance structures.

In the internal document I referred to above, the Peruvian bishops offer what is perhaps the most comprehensive analysis. While it cites certain trends in modern culture that are hostile to the Catholic church, as well as "defamations" against Catholicism sometimes advanced from the evangelicals, the report also offers a list of intra-Catholic problems:

  • Sometimes priests reduce their conception of pastoral work to perfunctory celebration of the sacraments, or that sometimes "painful aspects of their personal history" render priests incapable of responding to the needs of the people. The report also mentions "styles of life alien to gospel values," especially excessive preoccupation with "the economic dimension."
  • Religious congregations sometimes are too focused on their own works and not enough on the overall pastoral plan of the diocese.
  • Laity sometimes exhibit a strong disconnection between faith and everyday life.
  • Catholic liturgy sometimes reflects an exaggerated ritualism.
  • A triumphalistic conception that "we are the majority church" sometimes impedes an effective sense of mission.
  • Too many people feel that parishes and other church structures are anonymous and bureaucratic, rather than reflecting a real sense of community.
  • There is a lack of an overall, coordinated pastoral vision.

The bottom line, according to the bishop's report: "People, for the most part, leave the Catholic church for experiential and material reasons. It's a pastoral problem rather than theological-doctrinal."

Oddly enough, one factor not mentioned is the shortage of priests, which seems especially acute in rural areas. On July 9, I went up into the mountains with Fr. Clemente Ortega, who from his base in the town of Matucana, maybe two hours outside of Lima, covers 24 parishes in the Andes. Some of them are no more than 70 kilometers from Lima as the crow flies, but it takes him four or five hours in a jeep to travel the narrow dirt paths. I also spoke to a Jesuit in Peru who, when he was still in the field, covered 30 parishes.

Ortega is a committed priest, and gets to his communities at least once a month. Still, that means these Catholics have little by way of pastoral care. Hence some are understandably receptive when religious alternatives with a strong sense of community come along.

* * *

Though it's early in the game, when the list of eminent 21st century Catholics is drawn up, I suppose Maria Luisa Chumpitaz is unlikely to appear. That's a pity, because she arguably does more to live the gospel than most of the hierarchs and VIPs who will make the cut.

This Peruvian mother of nine lives in a poor rural village of 2,000, called Villa El Carmen, at the base of the Andes Mountains, some two hours north of Lima. It's definitely off the map; not only is there no highway exit to mark the spot, there's no highway. To get here, one has to take a narrow dirt road that's more frequently traveled by donkeys than cars.

This isolation is unfortunate for many reasons, among them that few people ever come out to see what Lucha is up to. (Her formal name is Maria Luisa, but everyone calls her "Lucha"). Despite galling poverty -- homes without roofs, water or electricity, the stench of smoke, serious malnutrition -- this determined woman, with just two years of primary education, teaches basic literacy to 45 other women. Many of these women, who sport colorful native Andean clothing and hats, come from mountain sites so remote that they've never even picked up a pencil, let alone written with it. Lucha also feeds their children, checks them for disease and coordinates medical check-ups.

In general, she tries to introduce the people of Villa El Carmen to some of the fruits of modernity without smuggling in all its toxins too.

Lucha does all this not as a well-meaning member of the Peruvian middle class who drives out from Lima once a week in a Range Rover, but as a poor woman herself, a member of the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is her home. Her father, Teodoro, came to Villa El Carmen when the village was founded some 15-20 years ago, a time in which Peru's indigenous peoples poured out of the mountains by the tens of thousands. They were fleeing the violence of the Shining Path, and settled at the base of the Andes in order to maintain something of their previous lives.

Lucha showed me around Villa El Carmen on Thursday, July 8. Lucha has raised nine children here, and today she runs a center for women and children called "Wawa-Wasi" or "House of Children" in the Quechua language, which is spoken in the Sierra, meaning the mountains.

Lucha launched her center 12 years ago. At the time, she persuaded her father to leave the house early in the morning and not come back until later in the afternoon so classes could be held there.

"We used the only large room in the house, but it had no roof," Lucha told me. "When it rained we got wet, and when the sun beat down on us we burned."

Lucha rallied the men of the village, each of whom scraped together a few soles, the Peruvian currency, and trekked a few miles away to a brick-maker. Together they purchased 1,000 bricks, and ported them to the village on their backs. They used them to put up better walls and a roof.

When Lucha's father died three years ago, the 12 brothers and sisters decided that the meager property should go to Lucha. A Peruvian NGO, called "Pro Peru," gave some funds to put up a larger facility. Today the Wawa-Wasi center consists of three classrooms, a nursery with eight cribs of different sizes, a makeshift infirmary, and Lucha's small office where she acts as administrator, teacher, counselor and sometimes even spiritual director.

The women here follow a three-level course of formation. The first focuses on basic literacy, the second introduces more complex reading and writing, and the third branches out to also include some history and geography. While the women study, the children get health check-ups and participate in group activities. Lucha's center also sponsors a child-to-child nutrition program, making sure that the children of Villa El Carmen, and their families, get a balanced diet.

It may perhaps strike some readers as incongruous that Lucha's spiritual inspiration is not the social activism of the Jesuits, or the progressive vision of liberation theology. Instead, Lucha's training and support comes from Opus Dei, a group generally classified among the more conservative elements of the Catholic Church.

Whatever one makes of Opus Dei -- and there are, of course, many opinions -- it's difficult to argue with Lucha's commitment. She's not looking to change the world, just to give women the tools they need to work, and to save few more children from death by disease or hunger.

All by itself that seems heroic, even if Lucha never makes the history books.

* * *

Leaving Peru, two news stories this week should help lay to rest the myth that clerical sexual misconduct in the Catholic church is somehow an "American problem."

In Austria, authorities discovered a huge collection of child pornography, including some 40,000 photos and videos, in the seminary of the Sankt Pölten diocese. They also found photos of priests and seminarians engaging in gay sex. Many of these second set of photos were taken by an unidentified 33-year-old Polish-born priest who used a digital camera, authorities said. Most of the images involving children, however, were downloaded from a Web site in Poland.

The bishop at the center of the scandal is Kurt Krenn, a longtime focus of controversy for his sharply conservative views and his blunt manner of expressing himself. He hasn't backed down in this case either. Krenn dismissed the photos of seminarians kissing and fondling each other, for example, as a "schoolboy prank" that "had nothing to do with homosexuality."

Rumors have long held that Krenn accepts seminarians either turned down or expelled from other seminaries, and some observers see in the present scandal the fruits of that approach.

Many Austrian Catholics seem to feel the only exit strategy is for Krenn to resign; Fr. Helmut Schueller, former vicar in Vienna and now the ombudsman for victims of sexual abuse, said so on national television July 14.Yet the 68-year-old Krenn is a battler. He has survived calls for his resignation before, such as a celebrated case in 1999 when he called Cardinal Christoph Schonbörn a "liar."

Readers interested in knowing more about Krenn can consult an interview I did with him and another Austrian bishop in 1998: Two bishops, two different worldviews, NCR November 6, 1998.

In Italy, the news agency Adista broke the story this week of an Italian bishop, Carmelo Ferraro of Agrigento, who reportedly had been aware of charges of sex abuse charges against one of his priests, Fr. Bruno Puleo, but took no action against him.

Puleo was recently sentenced to two and one-half years in prison for the sexual abuse of a former seminarian, Marco Marchese, who claims that he was subjected to abuse beginning at age 12.

Today Marchese is 22 and told Adista that he plans to file a civil lawsuit against the seminary rector and the bishop for having failed to prevent the abuse.

The news report and an interview with Marchese can be found here (in Italian):

* * *

If I may be forgiven a bit of self-promotion, readers of "The Word from Rome" may be interested to know that my new book is out from Doubleday. Those interested may find it at: All the Pope's Men.

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

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