The Pope Just Doesn't Get It
Published on Friday, April 26, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
The Pope Just Doesn't Get It
As cardinals discuss priestly abuse, the Vatican acts as if the real scandal is raising the subject at all
by Michael Valpy
What this sex scandal rocking the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has come down to, of course, is not sex but governance -- an issue of governance reaching beyond the bishops and cardinal princes of the U.S. church to the man in the Vatican.

It has come down to a Pope and his Curia high command who didn't get it, whose almost paranoid hostility to the mass media, to Catholic liberals and other "enemies of the church" led them to the complacent belief that what was unfolding across the Atlantic was more anti-Rome fluff than substance.

It has come down to John Paul II and his inner circle relying on advice and information from men -- the American cardinals -- who have risen to their high positions not because they are innovators or superb pastoral shepherds but because they are loyalists to the Pope who appointed them all.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, for example, is the leading exponent of John Paul's doctrine. He flagrantly covered up sexual abuses by priests in his archdiocese. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York won papal favor for helping to rewrite canon law. He has been portrayed in the media as treating abuse victims with hostility, doubting their veracity, rejecting church responsibility for what happened to them.

It has come down to a Pope and his Vatican court who see America as an alien, morally lax culture; who are hostile to the notion of a populist laity challenging -- or even questioning -- the church's leadership, and who are uncomfortable talking about sex.

Or as one U.S. Catholic scholar put it: "Culturally, they're just not up to speed over there [in Rome]" -- something revealingly illustrated at a press conference given a month ago by the powerful Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.

Peppered by reporters' questions about the troubles in the American church, he described the scandals as the product of the American "culture of pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness." Then, noting acidly that most of the reporters' questions were in English, he said, "This by itself is an X-ray of the problem."

Finally, the issue has come down to a blot on the papacy of a man who through his long reign -- the sixth-longest in history -- has garnered praise as a bridge-builder, as a diplomat, as a pope of the people and of the world, but who hasn't brought himself to apologize to the hundreds, likely thousands, of psychologically damaged victims of his molesting priests.

In his statement this week, delivered to an 11th-hour meeting of American cardinals as the U.S. Church floundered in a sea of public and media criticism, John Paul called priestly sexual predation a crime, the perpetrators of which had no place in the church.

He said he was in solidarity with the victims.

But he did not apologize to them.

"You can be in solidarity with the victims of a hurricane," one prominent U.S. Catholic told me yesterday. "But the apology that should have been there -- the same apology given to the Jews [for centuries of persecution], given to Orthodox Christians [for the sacking of Constantinople] -- was not there."

This interpretation of the role John Paul and the Vatican hierarchy have played in the American scandal comes from interviews with church commentators and academic observers in Canada and the United States, virtually all of whom asked to speak anonymously because they are either priests or teachers at Catholic universities.

Michael Higgins, president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., and one of the most thoughtful scholarly writers on contemporary Roman Catholicism, did speak for the record. He called the American sex scandal likely the most devastating issue of John Paul's papacy.

He wondered publicly if the best explanation for the Vatican's halting, clumsy mishandling of the issue is simply that the Pope "didn't get it." He quoted a recent New York Times article about a friend of the Pope who described him as an old man with the innocence of a child, who could never believe that a priest would sexually molest young people.

What is devastating about this scandal -- apart from the image it manifests of John Paul's house in disarray -- is the horrendous damage it has done to the credibility of the American church hierarchy.

A U.S. Catholic scholar said that because the hierarchy has appeared so duplicitous in dealing with the issue, America's Catholic laity now have no faith in the church's leaders to sort out the problem, to design appropriate screening mechanisms and sanctions for offenders.

The result, he suggested, is that panicky U.S. cardinals and leaders of the U.S. bishops' conference have been making autocratic declarations in Rome this week about barring homosexuals from the priesthood and the forced defrocking of priests for sexual misconduct -- without making thoughtful distinctions about who they may be dealing with.

"The question of homosexuals in the church should be debated," said one U.S. Catholic scholar. "But not at the same time as all this other stuff, not at the same time when we're dealing with pedophilia."

In any event, the U.S. Cardinals do not have the power to decree anything. Their constitutional role within the church is to be papal advisers and electors. Nothing more. Any new policy will have to be approved by some 300 U.S. Bishops, who meet in June. Then, it must be approved by the Holy See.

At the same time, is it not disingenuous to attribute innocence to the church hierarchy about sexual abuses?

How many papal mistresses have been known in history? How many literary works -- Umberto Eco's The Name of The Rose comes to mind -- and scholarly histories through the centuries have described priestly sexual liaisons and priest-produced pregnancies?

Equally to the point, how recent is the sense of empowerment among victims of sexual activities by priests so that they feel able to complain against the church? A U.S. commentator on the church said the Pope's statement this week about sexual abuse being a crime and the vow by U.S. Cardinals to put tough national policies into place does not mean the problem has been solved or that it will now go away.

"It's surfaced in the North American church because people do feel empowered to complain," he said. "But what about Latin countries where there's no cultural climate for admitting or acknowledging abuse? Yes, I see big problems down the road."

Big problems for which the classic Vatican aphorism -- "Think much, say little, write nothing down" -- is unlikely to be helpful.

Michael Valpy reports on religion and ethics for The Globe and Mail.

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