National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

August 15, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 48

global perspective



"Their apology shows humility and openness, and we are grateful for their honesty."

Sr. Mary Modise, moderator general of the Companions of St. Angela in the Johannesburg, commenting on an apology from the African Catholic Priests' Solidarity Movement for “the many wrongs that have been perpetrated against our African religious sisters."


Explaining Crimen Sollicitationi; South African nuns receive apology for mistreatment; Catholic diplomacy in Liberia; Intercommunion dispute in Germany; Cloning


Generally speaking, I think I do okay in the rough-and-tumble format of live TV. Every now and then, however, I wish I could have a “do-over” after a particular segment.

Last week brought a couple of examples.

The big story last week was a 1962 Vatican document dealing with the canonical crime of “solicitation,” meaning a priest abusing the confessional to proposition someone sexually. Titled Crimen Sollicitationis, it imposed secrecy on canonical investigations of these cases and other sexual misconduct by a priest. My story can be found here: 1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases.

I spoke with several top canon lawyers, who told me the document was being taken out of context. Its obscurity meant it had not had the impact being attributed to it, and in any event, it dealt only with canonical procedures. It did not order anyone not to cooperate with civil or criminal investigations.

While a culture of secrecy pervaded these matters in the Catholic Church, this document is not the reason why. As a reporter, it was my job to explain that.

Doing so meant challenging the early take on Crimen Sollicitationis in the press. Given widespread cynicism about the church resulting from the sex abuse scandals, it’s hardly surprising that many people initially believed the document was what a couple of civil lawyers said it was: a “smoking gun” proving a conspiracy. That’s how CBS led its coverage on Aug. 6: “For decades, priests in this country have abused children in parish after parish while their superiors covered it all up. Now it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican.”

On Aug. 7, I appeared on CNN’s Paula Zahn show with William Donohue of the Catholic League, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Catholicism. Donohue attacked CBS. “This is worse than anything that the New York Times did with Jayson Blair … CBS is guilty of defaming the Catholic Church,” Donohue said. (Jayson Blair was the Times reporter who was caught fabricating sources and plagiarizing stories.)

Since I didn’t have the chance to comment on that assessment, viewers may have had the impression I agreed.

Donohue certainly had a point that the CBS report was over-hyped and misleading. I suspect, however, this was the result of confusion and adrenaline rather than ill will. From the beginning, it’s been difficult to explain to non-Catholics the distinction between canon law and civil law, and that when the church imposes secrecy in canonical proceedings, that’s meant to be in addition to, not instead of, cooperation with civil and criminal investigations. That a correspondent who’s not been carefully following the story tripped over this point does not, at least prima facie, prove that CBS was guilty of defamation or deception.

The next night, Aug. 8, I was on Wolf Blitzer’s show with Paul Steidler of SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests. Steidler argued, among other points, that the document is “very hostile in tone toward victims.”

I pointed out that canon lawyers believe there is good reason for secrecy in sex abuse cases. It allows witnesses to speak freely, accused priests to protect their good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward who don’t want publicity. Such secrecy is also not unique to sex abuse. It applies, for example, to the appointment of bishops.

That comment might have led viewers to think that I was minimizing Steidler’s point.

In fact, like most everyone else covering this story, I have been dumbfounded by the insensitivity to victims that church officials have sometimes demonstrated, and secrecy has been part of that pattern. The recent report by the Massachusetts attorney general, for example, highlights the appearance of Bishop Robert Banks before a sentencing hearing in 1984 on behalf of Fr. Eugene O’Sullivan, convicted of sexually assaulting a minor. Banks successfully argued against incarceration, even though he had knowledge of other victims of O’Sullivan that he withheld from the court.  Similarly, Bishop (now Archbishop of New Orleans) Alfred Hughes in 1992 rallied to the defense of Fr. John Hanlon, indicted for sex abuse charges, even though Hughes knew of more recent allegations that he did not reveal.

 Given such behavior, it’s easy to see why Steidler is sensitive to the language about victims in Crimen Sollicitationis, and why critics say its emphasis on secrecy illustrates a dangerous mentality, even if it’s not proof of a criminal conspiracy.

That’s a balance I wish I had struck on the air.

* * *

One final reflection on Crimen Sollicitationis.

As the story was unfolding, I received a couple of comments from church officials here and in the United States along the lines of, “thank you for setting the record straight.” They were reacting to the fact that early coverage was overwhelmingly negative. Church spokespersons, who knew the document was no “smoking gun,” were frustrated that they couldn’t get that message across.

If my reporting helped restore some perspective, I’m glad.  But I don’t think church officials should take any comfort from the pattern this story revealed.

I suspect that the Crimen Sollicitationis episode may signal a new season for how the Catholic Church is covered by the American press. Just as Watergate changed the way the Americans perceived the government, the sexual abuse crisis may have reconfigured attitudes towards the church. All sorts of conspiracy theories and suggestions of corruption that once would have been dismissed by the mainstream press may now be given attention, and swallowed much more easily by the public. It will be increasingly difficult for church spokespersons to refute even obviously bogus stories, not because the spokespersons are wrong, but because few people are disposed to believe them.

This is not a matter of anti-Catholicism, meaning the malice with which some segments of American society have always approached the Catholic Church. This is a new phenomenon a tendency of even fair-minded people to believe the worst interpretation of any story involving the church.

Of course, this is terribly unfair. In the case of Crimen Sollicitationis, CBS should have checked with canon lawyers before rushing on the air with a report that created an inaccurate impression. But the church has to some extent brought this on itself: its record of concealment, stonewalling and denial has created a climate in which hasty and one-sided reports are going to find traction.

What is needed now is a communications strategy for the Catholic Church in the United States that goes beyond waiting for the next story to blow up, and then blaming the press for its incomprehension. The American church desperately needs to go on the offensive, opening itself up, telling its story, and reestablishing trust with the press and the public. If not, a whole generation of reporters may come of age thinking of the Catholic Church as its Nixon White House, the great white whale of investigative journalism.

In fact, there is a terrific story to be told about American Catholicism, but for now it is being suffocated. Time will tell if the bishops are capable of the leap of imagination necessary to let it see the light of day.

* * *

Speaking of the tragedy of sexual abuse within the church, a group of South African priests has recently apologized to African nuns for a range of mistreatment, including sexual abuse.

The National Catholic Reporter broke the story of five reports submitted to the Vatican documenting sexual abuse of nuns by priests, in Africa and elsewhere, in 2001.

Noting that “African nuns have been and continue to be given a raw deal in the church,” the African Catholic Priests' Solidarity Movement apologized for “the many wrongs that have been perpetrated against our African religious sisters and for the role that we African priests have played in this ill treatment.”

In its statement, the priests noted that opportunities for advanced education had been available to priests but not nuns, especially those from locally founded congregations.

“African nuns have often been financially disadvantaged. Unlike the priests who have always had some kind of significant allowance, the private use of a vehicle, a private (often spacious) house and many other material privileges, many African nuns have had to live with very little, even when they have been involved in diocesan ministries very similar to those of priests,” the statement said.

On the issue of sexual abuse, the priests noted that in many cases where a pregnancy resulted from “an unhealthy relationship between a priest and a nun,” the nun had to leave religious life while the priest was allowed to continue.

An African sister welcomed the statement.

“Their apology shows humility and openness, and we are grateful for their honesty,” said Sr. Mary Modise, moderator general of the Companions of St. Angela in the Johannesburg Diocese, in an interview with the Catholic News Service.

* * *

Keeping the focus on Africa, one hopeful story from the past week was the departure of President Charles Taylor from Liberia, perhaps clearing the way for an end to the civil war that has devastated that nation. If a peace deal is eventually struck, one contributor will have been the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church.

Last week Sant’Egidio hosted a two-day negotiating session in Rome with the main rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

The session ended with a “political proposal” from LURD, accepting conditions from Economic Community of West African States, which is supplying peacekeeping troops to Liberia, that no leaders of the warring parties should occupy the roles of president or vice-president of Liberia. They proposed instead that a transitional president should be selected “by consensus” from among political parties, civil society and eminent Liberians.  Of course, what they say in Rome is not necessarily what they’ll do on the ground, and as I write this column, Italian papers are carrying stories quoting LURD officials as suggesting they might lay claim to a “transitional” presidency.

On August 4, Sant’Egidio sponsored a press conference with the leader of the LURD, Sekou Damate Conneh. I asked Conneh about the role of Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis of Monrovia, whose urgent appeals helped arouse international interest in Liberia’s tragedy.

“He was the first man to start the initiative of dialogue with our organization,” Conneh said. “When it came to the cease-fire, we used Monsignor Francis as a channel of communication.”

The comment is a reminder of the powerful diplomatic role church officials can play when they are perceived as men of conscience rather than spokespersons for political factions.

Speaking on behalf of Sant’Egidio, spokesperson Mario Giro said the community will remain involved on behalf of Liberia. Sant’Egidio has contacts with religious communities and Catholic aid groups on the ground, he said. The day before they had asked British forces for help with the evacuation of children from the battle zone in Monrovia.

Giro said that until recently the conflict in Liberia had been one of Africa’s “forgotten wars,” and pledged that Sant’Egidio, known as the “United Nations of Trastevere” for its informal diplomatic work, would keep trying to put a spotlight on the continent’s other conflicts.

* * *

Few places in the world feel the pain of Christian division as acutely as Germany, where the population of 83 million is divided into roughly equal portions of 35 percent Catholics, 35 percent Protestants, and 30 percent “unaffiliated” or “other.” Catholics and Protestants intermarry, work together, and socialize together, and hence the reality of being forced to worship separately grates in a special way.

The big religion story of the German summer revolves around this point, involving two Catholic priests who were disciplined because they ran out of patience waiting for ecumenical progress.

In late May, Berlin was the site of a joint gathering of Catholics and Protestants. The event was officially sponsored by the Catholic and Lutheran churches, and hence the current discipline of the Catholic Church on inter-communion was observed. Under Catholic rules, individual non-Catholics may receive the Catholic Eucharist under limited conditions, but general inter-communion is not allowed.

Two liberal Catholic groups — “We are Church” and “The Church from Below Initiative” — decided to challenge that discipline by hosting joint inter-communion services. One took place on May 29, another May 31, both in East Berlin’s Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Both drew between 2,000 and 2,500 participants.

A 69-year-old Catholic priest and theologian, Fr. Gotthold Hasenhuettl, officiated at the May 29 service and distributed communion to both Catholics and Protestants. On May 31, a 41-year-old Bavarian Catholic priest named Fr. Bernhard Kroll delivered a homily at the other celebration, presided over by a Protestant pastor.

“The many ecumenically-minded Christian women and men here want finally to celebrate and give expression to what is for them already reality,” Kroll said, referring to Catholic/Protestant unity.

On June 4, Bishop Walter Mixa of Kroll’s diocese of Eichstatt announced that Kroll was suspended a divinis. Response in his parish of Grosshabersdorf was swift. The organist refused to play at Masses until Kroll returned, and members of the choir refused to sing. Hundreds of people formed a human chain stretching from the Catholic to the Lutheran churches to symbolize unity. A petition was circulated demanding Kroll’s reinstatement.

A few days later, Kroll announced that he had accepted the bishop’s invitation to make a retreat to consider his options. He has avoided comment in the press.

On July 1, meanwhile, Hasenhuettl received a letter from Bishop Rienhard Marx of Trier, the home diocese of Saarland University where Hasenhuettl is a professor of theology. Marx announced he would suspend Hasenhuettl from both his teaching position and the priesthood on July 16 if he did not sign a statement renouncing his actions.

Hasenhuettl was less circumspect in his reactions. He evoked Nazi imagery: “I was always taught in Rome never to be as obedient as Eichmann,” he said in a newspaper interview. Adolph Eichmann was a Nazi henchman executed in Israel in 1962.

Hasenhuettl also said he finds it strange that he is suspended “while the church does nothing to punish sexual offenders.”

In his letter, Marx accused Hasenhuettl of violating the following canons in the Code of Canon Law:

• Canon 844 §1: “Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers, except as provided for in articles 2-4 of this canon and in canon 861§2.”

• Canon 1365: “One who is guilty of prohibited participation in religious rites is to be punished with a just penalty.”

• Canon 273: “Clerics have a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and to their own Ordinary.”

• Canon 1371 § 2: To be punished with a just penalty is “a person who in any other way does not obey the lawful command or prohibition of the Apostolic See or the Ordinary or Superior and, after being warned, persists in disobedience.”

• Canon 933: “For a good reason, with the express permission of the local Ordinary, and provided scandal has been eliminated, a priest may celebrate the Eucharist in a place of worship of any Church or ecclesial community which is not in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

• Canon 846 §1: “The liturgical books, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the sacraments. Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in these books.”

Marx asked Hasenhuettl to sign the following statement:

“I repent for my behavior at the Eucharistic celebration which I led on May 29, 2003, in the Gethsemane Church in Berlin, in which I engaged in substantial offenses against the law of the Church. I will adhere in the future to the discipline of the Church, and I promise not to violate the canons specified in the letter of Bishop Reinhard Marx of July 1, 2003. I am aware that I will be suspended with any further offenses against the discipline of the Church. Because my public behavior generated wide attention, I consent that this statement be published by the General Vicariate of the Diocese of Trier.”

Hasenhuettl refused.

On July 20, the story took an unexpected turn when German President Johannes Rau criticized the move against Hasenhuettl on national television.

“The disciplining of a priest is all the more terrible for me, and as an Evangelical Christian, I can’t understand it,” Rau said.

The comment brought a rebuke from Cardinal Karl Lehmann, president of the German bishops’ conference, who said that commentary about church affairs does not pertain to the president’s office. He defended Marx’s action: “An offense against valid rules cannot remain without consequences,” Lehmann said.

Hasenhuettl has said that he will appeal Marx’s decision to the Vatican, though most canonical experts say he has little chance of success. While the appeal is underway, however, his suspension is itself suspended.

Some conservatives in Germany welcomed the action against Hasenhuettl, arguing that he should have been disciplined for the theological views expressed in Glaube ohne Mythos, where he attempts to “demythologize” some traditional Christian beliefs.

On the question of inter-communion, it is taken as an article of faith in some circles of German-speaking Catholicism that Pope John Paul’s April encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which repeated the inter-communion ban, was an attempt to head off precisely what unfolded in Berlin. While that may be a somewhat parochial view of things, the encyclical was cited by Marx and others in justifying disciplinary action against Hasenhuettl and Kroll. No doubt these cases are being closely followed within the Congregation for Divine Worship, as well as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The two Vatican offices are working on a disciplinary document on liturgical abuses as a follow-up to Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

* * *

Bishops aren’t always the ones dishing out discipline. Every now and then they’re on the receiving end. Such is the case this summer with Bishop Ronald Philippe Bär, who was head of the Rotterdam diocese in the Netherlands from 1983 until his abrupt resignation in 1993.

On July 10, Bär told reporters that he had been placed under a lifelong ban by the Vatican from writing or speaking on any subject whatsoever. He declined to elaborate on who exactly issued the order, but said he would obey. “I have always followed the church’s laws,” Bär said, according to the Dutch Press Agency.

Bär is now in the Belgian monastery of Chevetogne, in the Ardennes forest, where he became a Benedictine monk in the 1950s.

Over the course of his career, Bär became identified with the prevailing liberal humor of Dutch Catholicism in the post-Vatican II period. He favored allowing civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, he questioned the discipline of mandatory celibacy, and favored broader inter-communion with non-Catholics. He was popular in Dutch society, if not always in Rome.

When he retired without warning at age 64 in 1993, however, speculation focused not so much on his progressive theological views, but alleged personal improprieties. While Bär never denied the rumors, they have also never been officially confirmed.

Born in Indonesia, which was then still a Dutch colony, in a Protestant family, Bär spent his teenage years in a Japanese concentration camp. When he came to the Netherlands after the end of the war, he began studying theology at a Protestant faculty with the idea of becoming a clergyman. Then he converted to Roman Catholicism and entered the monastery of Chevetogne.

When Bär stepped down, it was apparently with the understanding that he would go quietly. Recently, however, he had been making a comeback. He celebrated the 2001 wedding of Princess Margarita of the Netherlands, a niece of Queen Beatrix and a daughter of the Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne, Carlos Hugo de Bourbon de Parme, to Dutch businessman named Edwin de Roy Van Zuydewijn. The queen disapproved of the match.

The couple later filed a lawsuit against the Dutch state for alleged harm to Van Zuydewijn’s business career resulting from a “royal campaign” against him. Bär said in a March interview that Margarita’s father had tried to persuade him not to officiate at the wedding, but “For me, the princess and Mr. De Roy van Zuydewijn were two lovers who wanted to marry in front of God.”

Speculation in Holland is that Bär’s involvement in the biggest Dutch soap opera of recent memory triggered the Vatican reminder that he is supposed to keep quiet.

* * *

On Aug. 9, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian who is president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, published an article in L’Osservatore Romano on cloning. Set in small type, it spread over two full pages in the semi-official Vatican newspaper. Trujillo explained that his office felt it necessary to set out objections to cloning given efforts within the United Nations to adopt an international convention on the subject.

For the most part, the article synthesizes the standard Vatican critique of both “reproductive” and “therapeutic” cloning of human beings. The former aims at producing a fully formed human, while the latter generates embryos that are later destroyed after cellular materials are extracted. Though there is a fairly wide international consensus against reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning is more controversial.

Ironically, Trujillo notes that from a Catholic point of view, therapeutic cloning is “even worse” than reproductive. Cloning aimed at generating a living human being is a form of artificial reproduction, while a technique that by design creates and destroys embryos is, from this perspective, deliberate murder.

Trujillo asserts that at a technical level, cloning involves elevated risks of various kinds of defects and abnormalities.  Ethically, he focuses on the argument that if an embryo is a unique human being, it is entitled to protection.

All this is rather familiar. Perhaps the most interesting paragraph comes when Trujillo suggests a thought experiment, inviting the reader to identify with an embryo:

“One way to place ourselves before this question would be to put ourselves in the position, not of the scientists who perform the cloning, but of the embryo (which we also were at one stage),” Trujillo writes.

“Surely it would not be pleasant to enter the world in a laboratory, instead of being the fruit of the union of our parents. Neither would it be pleasurable to be the survivor among tens or even hundreds of our twin siblings eliminated as ‘defective.’ Still less would it be pleasant to be manipulated for producing ‘pieces’ that someone else needs (for example, the kidneys), then to die after a brief and anguished life which had been ‘produced’ precisely for this reason.”

* * *

Finally, a sad note. Carmelite Fr. Redemptus Valabek, 69, an American and a familiar figure on the Rome scene, died in an auto accident Aug. 5 in Middletown, New York, while visiting his Carmelite brethren. The funeral was Aug. 9 at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Middletown.

Valabek, in addition to teaching spirituality at Rome’s Regina Mundi Institute and at the Beda College, also heard confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica. In a 2001 interview, he told me he had “heard it all” in the confessional box in St. Peter’s. A Muslim from Iran once asked to confess, did so after Valabek’s brief explanation that in his case it would not be a sacrament, then pronounced, “This place is terrific!”

Valabek was also spiritual director to a community of laywomen that runs Rome’s famed L’Eau Vive restaurant. His was a familiar voice to listeners of Vatican Radio, where he offered regular commentary in English on catechesis and spirituality.

I invite prayers for the repose of Fr. Valabek’s soul, and for more good and wise priests like him.

* * *

It may be worth nothing that this is the 100th “Word from Rome” column. I’d like to offer a note of thanks to all who make it possible, and all who find it useful.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280