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Spotlight Report

With too much to lose, Congress holds its tongue

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 5/6/2002

WASHINGTON -- In the halls of Congress, where lawmakers are eager to offer opinions and hold hearings on virtually any topic, the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has generated a startlingly unusual reaction: dead silence.

Catholic lawmakers wince at the question. Non-Catholics look even more uncomfortable, wary of appearing to be criticizing another religion. There are no hearings, no "one-minute" floor speeches in the House, no demands for oversight or pleas to help the victims. On Capitol Hill, where members of Congress freely criticize political players and spoke in excruciating detail about Bill Clinton's sex life, religion is the last taboo.

Lawmakers say they have no jurisdiction in the area, although they acknowledge that Congress and its members often weigh in on issues not under their direct authority. In the case of the sexual abuse scandal, members and analysts say, Congress is influenced by two critical factors: the power of the church and a reluctance to get involved in matters touching religion.

"God has silenced them. It's a miracle," said the Rev. Robert Drinan, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former member of Congress from Massachusetts. "They talk about everything else. Thank God they haven't talked about it."

Marshall Wittmann, a scholar with the Hudson Institute and former legislative affairs director of the Christian Coalition, said: "Politicians have a near-theological aversion to criticizing the church under any circumstances. It's a lose-lose situation. You might as well criticize apple pie and motherhood."

Interviews with dozens of members of Congress produced a similar reaction from Democrats and Republicans, and Catholics and non-Catholics, none of whom welcomed the opportunity to talk about the matter publicly.

Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico and a devout Catholic, grimaced when asked what he thought about the revelations.

"Congress has no role in this. We can't do anything. It's the Catholic Church," Domenici said. "We can pass laws to create crimes, but they're already on the books."

Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, stammered for nearly a minute before responding to a question on the matter. "I think every Catholic is upset about the revelations over the last four months. There is no question that this is going to lead to a set of changes in the Catholic Church that will match only Vatican II in our lifetime."

The matter is "more of a local law enforcement issue tha n a public policy issue, and I think that's proper," said Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota.

"I don't think Congress should make any laws regarding the church," said House majority leader Dick Armey, Republican of Texas.

Still, advocates and analysts note, Congress has delved into areas involving both religion and child sexual abuse. In the 1980s, it held hearings on sexual abuse of children in day-care centers. After the 1978 mass suicide and killings in Jonestown, Guyana, Congress held hearings that looked in part at the operations of the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Both chambers of Congress have chaplains and open sessions with a prayer. Capitol Hill is now considering President Bush's faith-based initiative to help religious organizations do public service work.

"There is an argument that there has to be a separation of church and state," said Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska. "[But] in Congress ... it doesn't seem to be a very bright line."

The allegations of sexual abuse raise an uncomfortable question among lawmakers: Can Congress address the criminal and public interest issues without stepping on religion?

"You have to look at forgiveness as a response to the sin, but justice as a response to the crime," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, director of the Interfaith Alliance. "I am pleased that there has not been the launching of grenades from the halls of Congress to the sanctuary of the Catholic Church."

But Lynn called for greater scrutiny.

"I don't fully understand why people don't feel a little freer to talk about the obvious, the fact that crimes were committed and people should get some remedy for that misconduct," he said.

"It's not technically true that there's no conceivable jurisdiction by Congress over this," if alleged abusers crossed state lines, making it arguably a federal as well as a state concern, Lynn said.

The church also has gotten heavily involved in politics, lobbying on such matters as abortion, debt relief, and welfare reform, said Allen Hertzke, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of "Representing God and Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in American Politics." But "there's no political gain" in addressing the church's troubles, he said. "I can understand why Congress is shying away from this."

Catholics have been the biggest single religion represented on Capitol Hill since 1964, making up 150 of Congress's 535 lawmakers, including every Massachusetts congressman and senator except Representative Barney Frank, according to the Maryland-based Americans for Religious Liberty.

That 28 percent share approximates the portion of American voters who identify themselves as Catholics, a number that ranges from 24 percent to 28 percent in polls, the group's research director, Al Menendez, said.

If Congress is going to say anything about the matter, non-Catholic lawmakers said, it should come from Catholics themselves. "I just feel that for me, for someone who's not Catholic, it's almost like interfering with an internal thing within the Catholic Church," said Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, who is Jewish.

But Catholic members, while distraught over the troubles facing their church, are squeamish about discussing it in a public forum.

"It's such a trying situation, that some of us didn't want to pile on," said Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida.

Because the Holy See is dealt with as a government, diplomatically, "it's almost like telling another government how to deal with its own cabinet," he said.

Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Springfield, said Catholic public officials "spent a lifetime trying to prove you can be Catholic and be a good American, to put to rest the argument that the pope was telling us what to do. Now we're going to tell them what to do?"

Congress, lawmakers and their leaders agree, is not likely to deal with the matter through legislation or hearings.

"We're not the ones to do it," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/6/2002.
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