National Catholic Reporter ®

July 26, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 48

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On exaggerating the sex abuse crisis; more on The Pope
Against the Jews; a curia member on curial qualities

“I can’t help but see that word ‘denial’ rearing its blatant head again. We’re talking about a church founded by Jesus and we’re talking about sexual abuse of children by its clergy. In this instance there is no such thing as ‘overkill.’ Who are we kidding!”

One person's response

Last week I wrote about a theory quietly making the rounds in Rome that one cause of media criticism of the Catholic Church in the United States resulting from the sexual abuse crisis is the influence of Jews in the press. I had anticipated, given the explosive nature of the subject, that I would get lots of mail.

     The mail did materialize. Very little of it, however, actually dealt with the Jewish angle. Instead, most people wrote to upbraid me for saying in an aside that media focus on the scandal may indeed have been exaggerated. I had put this in the context of other stories worthy of attention such as world hunger and AIDS.

     The subject line of one e-mail put the point in especially piquant form: “A chump writes for the National Catholic Reporter!” (When I saw it I could not suppress the quip, voiced to no one in particular, “Only one?”)

     Given the volume of responses, and the strong feelings they reflect, I decided to present a sampling this week. Whatever judgment one makes, I believe it is important to know what’s on people’s minds.

     “I can’t help but see that word ‘denial’ rearing its blatant head again. We’re talking about a church founded by Jesus and we’re talking about sexual abuse of children by its clergy. In this instance there is no such thing as ‘overkill.’ Who are we kidding!”

     “Regarding the sexual abuse of children versus the people dying from hunger, AIDS, etc., in those calamities there is no concerted action to cover-up … The large difference is of moral quality for an institution who claims to be in the mission of saving people and the defenseless. The hypocrisy and duplicity is what makes the people mostly angry.”

     “You and the Europeans and the bishops in Rome may think this news story is blown out of proportion to the more ‘important’ problems of the world. A rather hypocritical view from a group of men who think the most important event in world history was the death of one uneducated man, who lived 2,000 years ago. God does not ask us to determine which act of evil is worse, or whose suffering is more important. He asks us to try and stop all evil, and ease all suffering. Where we find it, when we find it. The bishops in Rome cannot end the AIDS epidemic; they can end this scandal.”

     “It IS a major story if the institution that claims for itself the position of being the only true representative of Christ on Earth is found to be a hotbed of homosexuality and of the sexual abuse of boys by its priests. Starvation, AIDS, and the war on terror are perennial — they will be with us for some time, and they are problems that fall under Jesus’s remark ‘the poor will be with you always.’ They don’t really have a solution, at least not now. They do deserve a lot of attention, and they do get it. But if Christ’s alleged representative is found to be likely to harm many of those under its umbrell— and harm them in the most intimate and soul-destroying way — there’s no story more important than that.”

     “It is a big deal to us (U.S. Catholics), and it should be to them (the Vatican). And it just alienates most of us, when we hear these loose-cannon cardinals … make these unfounded statements from their Ivory Tower. I think that our perspective is what matters in this case.”

     “Your view has been ‘Romanized’ by the crew that wants to minimize the issue or, as the church is so capable of doing, undermine addressing the issue since it’s a reflection of poor leadership. … I think you should be careful not to be a little taken with what you hear from those who have centuries of Machiavellian experience in subtly influencing the powers they most detest, such as a free press.”

* * *

     A few days ago I was asked by National Public Radio to explain what the Vatican thinks of the book The Popes Against the Jews (Knopf), by historian David Kertzer. To prepare myself I made an appointment July 19 to see Jesuit Fr. Peter Gumpel, the man responsible for the sainthood cause of Pius XII and the Vatican’s point person on controversies concerning the Second World War. 

     In the end, NPR’s program on Kertzer went in other directions and they did not need Vatican insight. Nevertheless, I thought readers might find a brief summary of what Gumpel had to say interesting.

     Gumpel retired from active Vatican service in 1993, but is still the relator for Pius XII and a few other causes. He is a German whose family fled to Holland during World War II to escape the Nazis.

     The heart of Kertzer’s argument is that European anti-Semitism, and hence the Holocaust, was fueled by Roman Catholic anti-Judaism. Hence, Kertzer believes, the 1998 Vatican statement We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah took the Catholic church off the hook too lightly in suggesting that the roots of the Holocaust were more “sociological and political than religious.”

     Kertzer quotes extensively from L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, and Civilità Cattolica, a Jesuit journal reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication. He notes that both publications in the 19th and 20th centuries voiced anti-Jewish sentiments, such as this broadside from L’Osservatore on the Dreyfus affair in France: “We find the betrayal of one’s country has been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed.” L’Osservatore later “reported” on the ritual murder of a boy in Hungary whose blood had been allegedly drained by Jews. Such ideas, Kertzer believes, sanctioned by church authorities, primed the pump for Nazi atrocities.

     Gumpel does not deny the citations, nor does he defend them. He insists, however, they must be seen in context. When the Papal States fell in 1870, he notes, the new Republican regime in Italy was often anti-clerical, and some of its leading figures were Jewish. This led to an overheated climate of antagonism, Gumpel said, in which Catholic controversialists in L’Osservatore and Civilità Cattolica spoke in overly broad terms about “the Jews” and made unfounded accusations.

     “We have apologized for this, as we should,” Gumpel said. 

     He then added something he has said many times before, always generating new controversy.

     “It is also true that from the Jewish side, hurtful things have been said and done to Christians. I personally believe it would be helpful if the Jewish community would also apologize.”

     Among other things, Gumpel said he believes Jews should apologize for, and disown, passages from the Talmud that suggest Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman legionary, charges which are periodically recycled in anti-Christian tracts.

     Fundamentally, Gumpel rejected Kerzter’s thesis that Catholic attitudes towards Judaism were at the root of the Holocaust, arguing that far more important factors included:

• The deportation of Russian Jews into Poland, and the subsequent resentment and competition this caused in the various countries in which these Jews eventually settled;

• The Jewish presence both in Lenin’s first government in Soviet Russia, and among Soviet-style revolutionaries in Eastern and Central Europe, which caused some to identify the Jews with Communism;

• The post-1929 global economic panic, which caused many newly impoverished Europeans to resent Jewish socioeconomic success.

     In fact, Gumpel argues, the Nazis saw the Catholic Church as a mortal foe, in part because of the church’s efforts to defend Jews. To take one instance from the documentation Gumpel offered, there is a plaque set up by Roman Jews in the Museo della Resistenza thanking the pope “for the proof of human brotherhood given by the church during the years of persecution.” 

     (I’ve been to this museum on Rome’s Via Tasso. It’s a former Gestapo interrogation center where the jail cells appear as the Germans left them. One can still see the heartbreaking messages prisoners carved into the walls in their last moments before execution. Confirming the point about aid to Jews, one wall of the museum has a large display listing all the religious houses and other Catholic facilities in Rome that sheltered Jews during the war. It is a long, and impressive, list).

     As a July 20 piece in the London Spectator observes, Gumpel is an erudite man whose exquisite manners belie his image as the Darth Vader of Catholic attitudes towards Jews. He says he regrets the “asperity” of much of the debate over Pius XII, and one believes him.

     Yet Gumpel is also not one to shy away from statements that seem destined to re-open wounds.

     One example from our interview: “I am all in favor of yearly memorials of the Shoah. But there are other things to be considered as well, others who suffered, 50 million people died in the war. Poles were killed, gypsies were killed, homosexuals were killed, 3,000 Catholic priests were killed. We should not single out a particular group.” 

     Gumpel added that he is confident Pius XII will eventually be declared a saint, but he has no new information as to when.

* * *

     My next book for Doubleday will be on the Roman Curia, under the title All the Pope’s Men. To begin the research for it I recently set up an appointment with Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the prefect of the Vatican library, who has served in the papal bureaucracy in one way or another for 25 years. 

     Mejia’s sense of humor is legendary. When I told him that I want to explain the curia to the non-expert, he scoffed: “That’s like trying to explain leukemia to the non-expert!”

     I asked Mejia to tick off a few of the qualities that allow someone to succeed in the Roman Curia. He listed efficiency, work ethic, a clear view of reality, and the courage of one’s convictions (to say more than “yes” to a superior when problems have to be analyzed).

     I observed that he hadn’t mentioned spirituality.

     “Of course a man must be spiritual,” Mejia said. “But not so much so that you don’t know where you are in this world.”

     Who does he think in recent Vatican history best exemplified these qualities? 

     Mejia talked about Rafael Merry del Val, the legendary secretary of state of Pius X, a Spaniard whose niece was a friend of Mejia’s mother in Argentina. Even more emphatically, Mejia pointed to Giovanni Bennelli, who had been Paul VI’s right-hand man before becoming the cardinal of Florence and a serious contender to be pope himself in 1978.

     “He was terribly diligent,” Mejia recalled. “He had three or four secretaries just to keep up. His office light often stayed on until 2:00 am, and at least one of those secretaries had to be with him. Today, nobody stays until 2:00 am.”

     What about negatives in the curia?

     “Corruption is a terrible malady, and we have to be very careful that it doesn’t exist,” Mejia said. By “corruption,” Mejia didn’t mean taking bribes, but allowing one’s judgment to be swayed be the desire for promotion, or adopting a solution not for the general good but for the good of one’s friends and allies. 

     Curial officials should also live simply, he said. “We all have to be thrifty. We don’t have much money.”

     Mejia said he believes there is less careerism in the curia today than 20 years ago, a change he attributes to John Paul II. “This kind of thinking is so alien to him, and he creates a certain climate,” he said.

     I asked Mejia about the curia’s reputation for secrecy.

     “If I tried to look at it from the outside, I suppose I would see a certain confidentiality,” Mejia said. “But since I’ve been here, things have changed. It’s much more open, and I wouldn’t say that’s always desirable. You can’t just say everything to everybody. An institution also has a right to privacy.”

     I asked what he had in mind.

     “Navarro says a lot, doesn’t he?” Mejia said, referring to Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the head of the Vatican press office.

     When I said that some journalists actually find Navarro a bit elusive, Mejia simply rolled his eyes.

     We had to cut the interview short because the outgoing ambassador of Argentina and his wife were arriving for a farewell lunch. As I was preparing to leave, Mejia said that perhaps the next time we could talk about some of the virtues he believes he’s learned in the Roman Curia. 

     Could he give me a hint of what they might be?

     “Humility,” he said, “Patience, certainly patience. And taking pleasure in the promotion of others.”

     I’ll pass along the fuller version when I get it.

* * *

     My new book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday) is available at

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

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