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Spotlight Report

World doesn't share US view of scandal

Clergy sexual abuse reaches far, receives an uneven focus

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, Globe Correspondent, 4/8/2002

    Trouble for bishops
Since 1990, 14 bishops have resigned amid allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.

At the southernmost end of the Americas, on the remote Chilean archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, a community is racked by allegations that a Catholic priest sexually abused children.

In Ireland, where Catholic prelates are still revered figures, a well-known bishop quit last week for failing to oust a pedophile priest; the previous week, in Poland, one of the world's most devout Catholic countries, an archbishop who once served on the pope's personal staff resigned after being accused of using an underground tunnel to make sexually harassing late-night visits to local seminarians.

Australia and Canada have been home to priest sexual abuse scandals; bishops in Belgium and France have run into legal hot water for failing to act against abusive priests. Even Italy, home to the church's headquarters, is riveted by a developing scandal in Sicily.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of many at the Vatican, there is something quintessentially American about the current clergy sexual abuse scandal, which some see as a manifestation of cultural depravity and a news media crazed by sex. The Vatican has long had a love-hate relationship with the United States, which is home to just 6 percent of the world's Catholics, and, in the face of low church attendance in Europe and broad dissent in the United States, it has targeted the developing world as the future heart of the church.

''No one [in the Vatican] thinks the sexual abuse of kids is unique to the States, but they do think that the reporting on it is uniquely American, fueled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church. And that thinking is tied to the larger perception about American culture, which is that there is a hysteria when it comes to anything sexual, and an incomprehension of the Catholic Church,'' said John F. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

''What that means is that Vatican officials are slower to make the kinds of public statements that most American Catholics want, and when they do make them they are tentative and halfhearted. It's not that they don't feel bad for the victims, but they think the clamor for them to apologize is fed by other factors that they don't want to capitulate to.''

During a Holy Week news conference in Rome, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos noted that most of the questions on clergy sexual abuse had been posed in English, and called that fact ''an X-ray of the problem.''

Castrillon cited research by Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, who argues that the problem is relatively minor. Jenkins then went on to argue in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is really an outgrowth of an ideological clash within the American Catholic Church.

''Questions about what the Church can or will do typically seem to assume that American Catholics represent the whole body of the faithful, which for no obvious reason finds itself under the supervision of a quirky, irascible band of elderly Europeans,'' Jenkins wrote. ''It is salutary to recall that the United States accounts for a paltry 6 percent of the world's Catholics, and that the fastest-growing Catholic centers are all in Africa, Asia, and Latin America - areas that do not share the American fascination with clerical scandal.''

A problem of prominence in the United States

Although there have been allegations of clergy sexual abuse worldwide, there is no data examining whether the problem is more acute in certain parts of the world. But clearly the issue has been most prominent in the United States, and then in Australia, Canada, and throughout the British Isles.

A Providence College psychology professor, the Rev. Joseph J. Guido, conducted a survey of superiors of an unspecified Catholic religious order and found that 83 percent of the North Americans were aware of an accusation of abuse against one of their priests, compared with 43 percent in Central America and the Caribbean and one-third in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. ''Research suggests ... that the sexual abuse of children is a problem for the church everywhere,'' Guido wrote in the current issue of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly.

However, he wrote, outside North America the religious order superiors were more likely to be aware of sexual misconduct by priests with adults, rather than children. In several parts of the English-speaking world, clergy sexual abuse scandals have erupted over the last two decades, costing the church hundreds of millions of dollars and immeasurable goodwill.

Australia has been particularly hard hit by clergy sexual abuse; in 1996, after years of accusations, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference declared, ''We acknowledge with deep sadness and regret that a number of clergy and religious [nuns and brothers] have sexually abused children, adolescents, and adults who have been in their pastoral care.''

A victims group, Broken Rites, lists more than 50 Australian priests and brothers who have been prosecuted for sexual crimes.

The Irish government is opening an inquiry into sexual abuse by priests after the resignation of Bishop Brendan Comiskey for failing to act against a pedophile priest. Already 50 Catholic priests have been convicted for child sexual abuse, and in February the church offered $110 million to compensate thousands of people who were sexually or physically abused as children in Catholic schools and child-care centers.

There have been some significant scandals elsewhere in the West. In France last year, a bishop was convicted of a crime for failing to report a pedophile priest to authorities. At least 14 bishops have been forced to quit over sex abuse since 1990, in most cases because of their own sexual behavior, but in three cases because they were accused of protecting priests.

In Canada, a scandal erupted in 1988 over allegations of widespread abuse of children at a Catholic orphanage, Mount Cashel, in Newfoundland. The religious order that ran the orphanage filed for bankruptcy in the face of numerous lawsuits; since then, a number of priests across the country have been accused of child abuse.

By contrast, few cases in the developing world have attracted much attention. In South Africa, the church last year began investigating allegations of abuse of children by priests and other church workers, but at the same time asserted that the issue was not as significant there as in the United States.

The church's population has increasingly been shifting to the Southern Hemisphere and the developing world, as the percentage of the world's Catholics who live in North America and Europe falls. Today, 40 percent of all Catholics live in Central and South America, 12 percent in Africa, and 10 percent in Asia. North America is home to just 9 percent of the world's Catholics, and Europe to 27 percent.

Pope John Paul II has devoted considerable attention to evangelization in the developing world and has made an effort to increase its power in the global church by creating cardinals from developing nations.

Academics and church officials familiar with the church in the Third World say the problem of clergy sexual abuse is generally not talked about there, so it is difficult to determine whether it exists to the same extent as in the United States. The academics said that priests in developing countries generally have a higher status than in the United States, and may therefore be psychologically healthier; that the church is more hierarchical outside the United States, and therefore more difficult to challenge; and that neither the news media, the legal system, nor the public culture are accustomed to robust discussions of sexual abuse.

''For good reasons and not so good reasons, issues surrounding sexuality are much more open in American society,'' said Mathew N. Schmalz, director of Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, who has researched Catholicism in Asia and Africa, and who argues that although celibate men are viewed as sexually aberrant in the United States, they are held in respect in Asia.

''In India you'd have gossip and rumors, but it never reaches the level of formal charges or controversies,'' Schmalz said.

Thomas Jayawardene, a professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has studied the Catholic Church in Asia and Europe, agreed, citing a long tradition of Buddhist celibates.

''The United States is a Protestant culture, so a married ministry is accepted and respected here, but in Asia, the celibate culture is much more accepted, and it's very difficult to question the celibate life,'' he said.

But Jayawardene said there is no question that clergy sexual abuse happens in Asia. ''I have known clergy who have complained that their seminary rectors abused them as minors in South Asia - I know that was prevalent in South Asia,'' he said. ''The issue is not unique to the United States, but what is unique here is that it is possible to discuss the issue in the open. In Asia, I don't think the laws are strong enough to prosecute.''

AIDS causes different problem in Africa

In Africa, by contrast, celibacy has been much less accepted, and most reported sexual problems have been between priests and adult women. There was a scandal last summer after the National Catholic Reporter reported that priests had been raping nuns in parts of Africa.

The newspaper reported that the Vatican had known for seven years that priests were having sex with nuns, and in some cases raping them - apparently in part because in a continent where many people have AIDS, the nuns were viewed as safe sexual partners. In a handful of cases, nuns became pregnant and were encouraged by priests to have abortions.

The Vatican responded to the report by issuing a statement, in Italian, that did not use the words Africa, sex, or abuse.

''The problem is known, and is restricted to a geographically limited area,'' the Vatican said. ''Certain negative situations cannot cause to be forgotten the frequently heroic fidelity of the great majority of male religious, female religious, and priests.''

Scholars say the problem of priests violating their celibacy vows with adult women appears to be more significant than clergy sexual abuse of children in Africa.

''If there has been a problem in the African church related to celibacy, it is with the number of priests who are secretly married,'' said the Rev. Lawrence M. Njoroge, a professor of ethics at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya. ''But the Catholic Church is relatively new in Africa, and many of the problems that have appeared in other parts of the world may not have revealed themselves yet. It requires time for issues to arise.''

Njoroge said in Africa, it would also be difficult to have a public discussion of clergy sexual abuse. The situation is similar in much of Latin America, according to the Rev. Robert S. Pelton, a faculty fellow at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

''The whole world has a problem, but it gets brought into sharper perspective in the so-called First World,'' Pelton said. ''In Latin America, it's more difficult to challenge the church, and so many people will say they're worried about their next meal and these types of concerns.''

That may be changing, particularly in Chile, where there are currently at least five high-profile cases in which priests are accused of sexually abusing minors. Just this past Thursday, a leading Chilean magazine, Paula, featured a cover story on the Tierra del Fuego sexual abuse case, and the top-rated television news program ''Informe Especial'' featured a 90-minute report on sexual abuse by priests in Chile.

But the Chilean church has thus far declined to speak out on the issue and has been criticized for allowing accused priests to leave the country. In Tierra del Fuego, Bishop Tomas Gonzalez told the father of one abused child ''we all have human weaknesses,'' allowed an accused church official who was not a priest to continue working, and, when the parents threatened to sue, sent the official to Argentina. And a priest who was accused of sexually molesting a 5-year-old last year was allowed to avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for returning to his native Peru and agreeing not to enter Chile for at least three years.

The reaction by the Vatican to the current uproar suggests the hierarchy sees a particularly American hue to this scandal. Pope John Paul II has been a longtime critic of various aspects of American culture, and he has directed his comments on the abuse issue at the English-speaking world - the first time he mentioned it was in 1993 in Denver, and last year he addressed it in an Internet letter to the dioceses of Oceania, which is dominated by Australia.

''A lot of people in Rome think of the Catholic Church in the United States of America as big and vigorous and rich, but morally flaccid and not very sophisticated, and a tad of anti-Americanism shows up in the Vatican,'' said Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. ''You get the impression that they think there's too much openness and too much self-revelation and too independent and feisty a press, and that a lot of this gets magnified by anti-Catholicism. There still may be in Europe a tendency to hush these issues up.''

The Vatican tries to find proper framework

Although the Vatican tightly controls many aspects of local church life around the globe, down to the words used in prayer, it has largely deferred to local churches to manage clergy sexual abuse scandals. That may be changing: On a handful of occasions recently, Rome has appeared to have forced the resignation of a bishop over this issue, and late last year the Vatican issued new standards requiring that cases be reported to Rome.

But the pope's recent comments on the issue have been quite general - for example, in his Holy Thursday letter to priests this month he wrote, ''As priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination.''

And the only change the Vatican is now known to be contemplating in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal is a ban on gay men as priests, which is being debated at the Vatican's Congregation for Education.

''The Vatican is a very protective world, and there's a whole way of proceeding with secrecy and denial,'' said the Rev. James F. Keenan, a professor of moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge. ''I think they think that eventually this is all going to fade away.''

Other theologians suggest that because of the frail health of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican will have a hard time acting on this issue.

''The Vatican is, at the moment, effectively leaderless, given the pope's serious physical impairments,'' said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

''Given his inability to take charge of the situation, those just below him in the Vatican bureaucracy are doing everything they can to deny the scope of the crisis and to attribute it all to American decadence and greed. To do otherwise is to admit something too terrible for them to contemplate, namely that there is a systemic breakdown of immense proportions - well beyond their capacity to control it.''

Globe correspondent Jonathan Franklin contributed to this report from Santiago, Chile. Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2002.
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