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Spotlight Report

Some in US question Vatican's strong hand

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 11/29/2002

VATICAN CITY - The sense of impenetrability begins at the Vatican gate just beyond St. Peter's Square.

Swiss Guards wearing the colors of the Medici flank the portals of the thick, cappuccino-colored walls and lift their pikes to allow passage only after receiving orders. Farther inside, a gatekeeper checks his list before giving a reluctant nod for a visitor to enter a 12-foot door reinforced with steel and iron spikes to repel invaders. It swings open to allow a visitor into the inner courtyard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Congregation is the theological nerve center of the Vatican and a central arbiter in the handling of priest sex-abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere.

Inside the fortress-like building, an air of secrecy and monarchical power wafts through elegant, marble halls like a thick plume of incense. A high-level official here began a recent conversation the way most discussions with reporters inside the walls of the Holy See begin: ''This is all off the record, of course.''

Lay Catholics and some clerics in the United States are increasingly challenging highly doctrinaire Vatican institutions like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as archaic, out of touch, tinged with anti-Americanism, and too bureaucratic to respond to the priest sexual abuse crisis that is plaguing the Catholic Church in the United States.

Decisions made by the Congregation directly affect the spiritual life of the world's 1 billion Catholics: pronouncements on Catholic teaching, matters of marriage and divorce, the morality of modern science. And it was the office that played a key role in the US bishops' new rules that address the priest sex-abuse scandal.

The Congregation was founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, with a mission of defending the church from heresy. It is the oldest of the Curia's nine congregations.

Despite the power of this and the other Vatican congregations, which help the pope govern what the Vatican calls ''the universal church,'' not all Catholics understand how these institutions shape church policy and how the pope relies on the hand-picked prefects who run them to exert influence in church matters all over the world.

Victim advocates say the Vatican used a heavy hand in reshaping the rules for dealing with clergy sexual abuse. The US bishops approved new rules in June in a tense gathering in Dallas, but the Vatican determined that the regulations needed to offer more rights for accused priests and a circumscribed role for the laity. A committee of Vatican and US bishops debated changes sought by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and revised rules were approved by the US bishops this month in Washington.

The dispute prompted some US Catholics to ponder the Vatican's handling of the scandal.

''The crisis in the church has changed the way a lot of American Catholics think of their hierarchy and think of the Vatican. The mystique is changing; the air of secrecy has become something more sinister these days,'' said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, an American priest and canon lawyer who has become a leading clerical advocate for victims.

Since serving in the Vatican Embassy in Washington and coauthoring a pioneering 1985 report on widespread clerical sexual abuse of children, Doyle has tangled with the church hierarchy on the issue. He says church officials' intransigence grows out of a culture in Rome that has sought to minimize the scandal, protect its own priestly power, and isolate clerical sexual abuse as an American problem.

''It all comes down to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,'' Doyle said. ''They are quite simply bizarre. They will fight and ponder for three days over a word in a document, but they still can't seem to understand the injustice that has happened in the American Catholic church, and the rage and pain that it has caused.

''It feels like the last item on the agenda is the protection of children and the top of the agenda is power, power, and power.''

Doyle said he feels that the Congregation, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ''watered down'' the rules for confronting priest sex abuse that were established by the US bishops in Dallas in June. He said the changes weakened the role of the lay boards and in the end, as Doyle put it, continued ''with the view that church law is somehow above state law.''

Just weeks before the US bishops were to announce the document in Washington, officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and three other major Vatican congregations summoned four leading American bishops to Rome to make controversial modifications to the rules.

It is difficult to get Vatican officials to comment on this or any other matter. The lone spokesman for the pope, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, did not reply to repeated requests for interviews. Archbishop John P. Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and is one of the few Vatican officials who speak on the record, spoke guardedly about the new rules. In a phone interview, he described the modifications as ''a few little adjustments.''

''There was no repudiation, but an effort to help them [the American bishops] do it in the right way,'' Foley said, saying that the key changes were meant to ensure that accused priests have due process within the church's law and the state's law.

A senior Vatican official who serves in one of the congregations involved in modifying the rules was more forthcoming in private.

''There was a crisis atmosphere, and the Vatican does not work well in that atmosphere,'' the official said. ''The Holy See would prefer discussions of the text earlier. If the US bishops had floated the text here before going to Dallas, it could have gone a lot smoother.''

The official conceded the Vatican was very slow to respond to the crisis when it reached fever pitch in January and that part of the hierarchy viewed it as a problem incubated in America's secular culture. But he said that attitude has now changed.

''It is just the opposite,'' the official said. ''There is an awareness that this is also a problem in Ireland, in Australia, in Latin America. In fact, that is why the Holy See was so intent on this being done right. The document is particular law and not universal law, but it will be consulted by dioceses all over the world.''

American author Jason Berry, who is researching the Vatican's role in the scandal, said: ''I think the Vatican believes it won this fight, but it will come back to haunt them. The modifications they have made will intensify the conflict between the two legal systems, the church's canon law and the laws of the state.

''It's a baroque gesture, meant to rein in the bishops under the Vatican's own law and at the same time dismissing two institutions of American democracy, the courts and the media, who brought the American church to its knees,'' Berry said.

He and other longtime observers say there is also a cultural undercurrent of anti-Americanism that runs through the Vatican, which views the media with suspicion and sees the public airing of the issue and the frank discussion on the failures of the church to address it as offensive.

''They just don't get America at all,'' Berry said.

Doyle said the Vatican's reluctance to hear American calls for a strong, open response to the child abuse issue is beginning to affect attitudes toward Rome. The problem had built up over many years, and the Vatican had been seen as distant but concerned, he said. ''But the November meeting in Washington has inflamed victims in a way that the anger is turning toward Rome now.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/29/2002.
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