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Spotlight Report

Pontiff reaffirms rules on celibacy

As US cardinals gather for crisis session, pope rejects radical changes

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 4/21/2002

ROME - Pope John Paul II delivered strong remarks yesterday affirming priestly celibacy and the responsibility of bishops to report scandalous violations, just three days before US cardinals meet here to address the widening crisis of clerical sexual abuse.

''Behavior which might give scandal must be carefully avoided, and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such behavior, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist,'' the pope told visiting Nigerian bishops.

Although John Paul did not refer directly to the scandal rocking the church in the United States, Vatican observers said the timing and tone of his comments were an indication of his indignation at the failure of the American church hierarchy to handle the crisis.

The remarks, the most extensive the pope has made on the topic since the scandal erupted, were seen as a rebuke of several American cardinals who said last week that they hoped the meeting would prompt a discussion of changing the Roman church's doctrine of celibacy, which dates to the 12th century.

''The value of celibacy as a complete gift of self to the Lord and his church must be carefully safeguarded,'' he said. ''The life of chastity, poverty, and obedience willingly embraced and faithfully lived confutes the conventional wisdom of the world and challenges the commonly accepted vision of life.''

The pope's statement was also perceived as a head-on response to allegations in Africa that many priests are violating their vows of celibacy by having sexual relationships with women.

But most importantly, Vatican observers said, the statement seemed to have been intended to underscore the gravity of the pending meeting with cardinals, which many observers say is shaping up as a dramatic showdown - ''a clash of cultures,'' as one American cardinal put it.

The clash involves the American culture of accountability, with its aggressive legal system and its dogged media, which will confront the Vatican culture of authority, with its hierarchical layers and its shrouds of secrecy.

The gathering of cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday is intended to answer accusations that the Holy See has been too slow to respond to the destructive and costly crisis engulfing the American church, according to senior officials and observers at the Vatican.

And despite the pope's statement, advocates of victims and many proponents of church change say the meeting is still inherently flawed. Critics question the wisdom of summoning a group of church leaders, some of whom - such as Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law and New York's Cardinal Edward M. Egan - are alleged to be at the very center of the scandal, by sheltering priests known to have abused children.

The fact that only American cardinals were summoned reflects another concern of victim advocates and critics: that the Vatican remains intent on isolating the problem as a uniquely American phenomenon, even in the face of mounting evidence that similar crises are simmering in dioceses in Africa, South America, and across Europe.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome, and who will be participating in the meeting, said in an interview that the Vatican meeting ''is in some ways about a clash of cultures ... and that clash is healthy.''

Stafford discussed the ''vibrancy'' of the American church, and said lay followers should play a role in the church's efforts to find its way out of the crisis.

Jason Berry, author of a newly revised book ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children,'' has been a researcher on the subject for more than a decade. He disagreed with Stafford that the clash was part of a healthy dialogue, saying:

''Whether you call it a clash of cultures or a vacuum of leadership may be semantics. The truth is, this is an elaborate exercise in damage control.

''It troubles me,'' Berry went on, ''that there is a line coming out of Rome that the pope has engaged on this issue. It is clear he has known about this problem for years, and his inattention to it has been disastrous.''

Even some ardent supporters of the pope and his conservative advisers concede that the Vatican has been too slow in responding to the crisis.

George Weigel, a Catholic theologian in Rome and the author of ''Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II,'' said: ''If it were the case that the pope has been too slow in reacting to this, it is clear now that he has focused his attention. ... People are getting very serious about this now.''

But in John Paul's quarter-century as pope, there is little in Vatican records - at least those available to the public - that would indicate anything other than a pattern of inattention to a crisis that surfaced in America in the mid-1980s and early '90s.

At that time, a steady stream of cases began surfacing, including those against the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La., and the Rev. James Porter of Fall River, both of whom were convicted as serial pedophiles.

The cases suggested that church leaders were more intent on sweeping the crimes under the rug and protecting the priests than on ensuring that sexual predators no longer had access to children.

The diocesan documents uncovered in the Globe's January Spotlight series on the Rev. John J. Geoghan, and later revelations in the case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, provided a devastating history of cover-up and recycling of priests known to be sexual abusers of children from one parish to another.

Those findings, and allegations about dozens of other priests, have shaken the Boston Archdiocese to its core, and have led to an outcry in New England. Among Boston-area Catholics, 65 percent have called for Law to resign because of his mishandling of the issue, according to the latest Globe-WBZ-TV poll.

The scandal has emerged elsewhere. In the aftermath of the Boston reports, a torrent of cases has surfaced in New York, Los Angeles, and other US cities.

Specialists like Berry and other prominent researchers have estimated that in the past 15 years the total cost of the scandals, including legal settlements, lawyers' fees, psychological treatment for abusive priests and their victims, and other costs paid by the church, could approach $1 billion. The Geoghan case alone is expected to cost the Boston Archdiocese as much as $40 million.

In the same time frame, the number of American priests facing allegations of sexual abuse is estimated at 1,500, according to Berry. The total number of victims is unknown, but some projections say the figure is likely to exceed 10,000.

Given the scope of the problem, analysts say, two questions arise: What is the Vatican's official and legal policy regarding sexual abuse by clergy? And what is the obligation of clerics to report offenses to superiors within the church and to law enforcement authorities outside of it?

The short answers, based on interviews with several experts on church law and one Vatican canon lawyer, are: Both the policy and the obligations are vague.

But the debate over whether the Code of Canon Law, the church's official body of law, provides sufficient clarity on this issue is one of the central fault lines of the upcoming meeting.

Conservatives say canon law is sound and sufficient. The Rev. John Wauck, an American priest based in Rome and a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, said: ''Canon law has been looked down on as authoritarian and too rigid, but it is actually very complete and all that is needed here. This is a chance for the church to rediscover its own authority.''

Relatively liberal American reformers within the church assert that canon law is archaic, and that the church must devise guidelines that adhere to the federal and state laws of the United States. They also point to the fact that the long and cumbersome canon law proceedings have not been effectively used in the scandals.

In 1983, the Vatican added to the code a clause that dealt directly with sexual abuse of a minor, defined as being under 16 years of age. Canon No. 1395 states that a cleric who violates his vow of celibacy ''by force or with threats'' or ''with a minor'' is ''to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.''

Beyond this relatively vague statute, there is no canon that deals directly with the responsibility within the church to report such crimes. This, Vatican experts say, will be one of the central focuses of the meeting with US cardinals.

Along these lines, John Paul issued a ''papal instruction'' regarding sexual abuse by the clergy in an epistle to Catholic bishops all over the world, dated May 18, 2001, and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Defenders of the Vatican's handling of the crisis point out that this document was issued months before the current scandals. But the letter, which was written in Latin and which was never officially translated, remained in obscurity until the Catholic press uncovered it in December, just before the scandals broke.

In translation, the document states these major points: Priests have a sacred obligation to confess such sins, and their superiors have an obligation to open an internal investigation and to alert the Vatican of the proceedings. It also states that for underage victims, the code's 10-year statute of limitations begins when they are 18.

The four-page document offers an elaborate examination of how priests who do not come forward compound their sin by ''consecrating the Eucharist with an impure soul.''

But it provides no practical guidelines for the obligation of superiors to report these crimes, and it does not address whether law enforcement officials should be contacted. In fact, some senior Vatican officials, such as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who serves under Ratzinger, have expressed reservations about a policy of automatic reporting because it could undercut the relationship of trust between bishops and priests.

Since revelations began pouring out early this year, one of the pope's few public references to the scandal was made in one paragraph of a 12-page letter on Holy Thursday, a day of penance and humility three days before Easter. In the letter, the pontiff said a ''dark shadow of suspicion'' had been cast over priests ''by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination.'' It said those priests had been caught up in ''the mystery of evil.''

But the statement projected little compassion for the victims of this scandal, and was sharply criticized by victims' advocates.

The pope's attention was directly turned to this matter one week ago when Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, came to Rome to appeal for help in dealing with the crisis. At the same time, Law secretly traveled to Rome to discuss with the pope, as he later said, ''the fact that my resignation has been proposed as necessary.'' The Vatican announced April 15 that it would summon the 13 US cardinals to Rome.

Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and a psychology professor at Chicago's Loyola University who wrote ''The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality,'' said the meeting this week is ''not only a clash of cultures, but a collision of history.''

''When the pope calls the cardinals to Rome, he is giving a symbol of the past, of precisely what can't work any more. Not in America. Not today,'' Kennedy said. ''That is clerical leadership from the top, without the compassion that reaches down to be with the people who really suffered in all this, and that's the victims.''

Charles M. Sennott can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/21/2002.
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