What Does Rome Want?

"The application of the policies adopted in Dallas can be the source of confusion and ambiguity." Is this response from the Vatican an honest one, or does it forecast serious trouble? Is it possible that some Vatican officials don’t get it? If so, the U.S. bishops negotiating a rewrite of the Dallas sexual-abuse norms will have to make sure they do. Vatican officials could have responded in other ways to the national norms that would be binding on U.S. Catholic bishops: they could have accepted them, at least provisionally, or rejected them outright (which presumably they would dare not do). Instead, four curial officials will involve themselves in questions about which their understanding appears to be gravely limited. Three of the four have made statements about clergy sexual abuse of children suggesting a woeful degree of ignorance, if not worse. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos has made recent statements minimizing the problem, and in a 1997 letter to Tucson bishop Manuel Moreno, he urged the bishop to allow an abusive priest to continue as a consultant to other dioceses. Moreno refused. Last spring, Archbishop Julian Herranz called pedophilia a form of homosexuality, and a third, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, has argued that bishops should not turn abusers over to civil authorities (Boston Globe, October 24).

The four members of the U.S. delegation—Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop William Levada, Bishop Thomas Doran, and Bishop William Lori—have been promoted as men whose loyalty is unquestioned in Rome. Ergo, their views will be duly considered, and they may carry the day in revising the norms without eviscerating them. Or they might just rubber stamp Rome’s request.

The Dallas norms agreed to by the U.S. hierarchy this past June were adopted under intense pressure not just from the media, as the Vatican seems to think, but also from American Catholics and legal authorities; the protracted nature of the sex-abuse scandal itself made any half-measures highly suspect. Though there were voices of disagreement and caution raised about some of the norms proposed, in the end the bishops’ assembly voted (239–13) to defuse the crisis by adopting a "zero-tolerance policy" for past, current, and future sex crimes by priests against children and young people. These priests were to be removed from ministry, period. The moral cost of this policy has been high: the relations between some bishops and their priests are frayed and full of mistrust. Of course, other measures might have been taken at Dallas—Cardinal Bernard Law and his coterie of episcopal appointees should have been asked by their fellow bishops to resign, and then done so. That did not happen.

Now the Vatican has apparently said "no" to national norms unless there is more attention to due process for priests. What is needed is fine tuning the criteria for a credible accusation, a tighter definition of sexual abuse, and clear disposition of cases that exceed the canonical statute of limitations. Who could disagree, if that’s where these officials focus their discussions with the Americans? But there is also this sentence in the Vatican letter: "Questions also remain concerning the concrete manner in which the procedures outlined in the ’Norms’ and ’Charter’ are to be applied" in conjunction with canon law and other Vatican documents. What does this mean? What will it be taken to mean?

The U.S. bishops have lost their credibility at least on the national scene; discretionary decisions made by clerical monopoly will no longer be tolerated. The bishops have lost the trust of priests and laity alike. That is unfair to those who carefully dealt with their own child-abusing priests over the years, but that is the unfortunate fact of the matter. The restoration of some modicum of trust is essential. That requires the rapid resolution of cases in which priests have been removed from ministry. There has to be constant vigilance in reporting new cases or old ones now revealed. Review boards, local and national, must be sufficiently independent and informed in order to certify that every diocese is doing what the bishops have said they will do—end child sexual abuse by clergy.

Why Vatican officials would not be as eager as their American colleagues to resolve this problem and restore trust is puzzling and unsettling. A wholesale overhaul of the norms that returns decision making solely to the bishops, or worse, the Vatican, will destroy whatever good has come from the bishops’ difficult decision in Dallas.

Back in April, John Paul II said to the U.S. cardinals, "Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church’s leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God" (Origins, May 2). Why dally then over dealing with what is both a crime and a sin?

Published in the 2002-11-08 issue: 
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