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Above the fray: Vatican remains detached in pedophilia crisis

By Jason Berry, 2/3/2002

NEW ORLEANS - The archbishop's residence here is in a leafy seminary complex just a block from my home. I have not met my new neighbor, Alfred Hughes, although I feel some sadness for him. His mistakes in Boston are under a microscope in the pedophiliac priest scandal.

As an official of the Boston archdiocese in the early 1990s, Hughes signed off on a new parish assignment for the Rev. John Geoghan, whom at least 130 people say sexually abused them as children at parishes where he worked. The mistakes by Hughes, who recently became archbishop here, show how widespread the church ripples are on this issue, even though his errors pale beside Cardinal Bernard Law's horrific lapses in repeatedly assigning a known child molester to new parishes.

As revelations continue about the scope of the coverup involving clerical child molesters, the spectacle of a cardinal mired in such a scandal is a numbing sight. Still, however jarring these events are, as the national media train their lenses on Boston, the problem's scope is broader. There is a greater story in Rome.

The Vatican has failed to provide leadership on this traumatic issue. Why has Pope John Paul II failed to confront this crisis, building over many years, and chart a path for reform? Consider the background.

In 1985 the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an American canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, began an informal survey of bishops dealing with pedophiliac priests. Doyle was on a career track to become a bishop or church diplomat. He compiled his findings into a 100-page report, recommending a policy to remove offenders, help victims, and be open with the media. A copy went to Rome.

The report went nowhere. No bishop wanted to get near the topic. In a power structure honeycombed with secrecy, the greatest sin is to be near a scandal when it becomes public. In 1986 Doyle gave a speech in New Jersey and called pedophilia ''the greatest problem that we in the church have faced in centuries.'' The comment was prophetic.

A few bishops scolded Doyle; most ignored him. The Vatican decided not to renew his job. Doyle joined the Air Force as a military chaplain. He also began testifying in civil trials against bishops in abuse cases. His testimony was pivotal in a 1997 Dallas trial with a stunning $121 million verdict. (The plaintiffs negotiated a $30 million settlement after the trial, with the diocese facing bankruptcy.)

As Doyle was following his conscience, the hierarchy dug deeper into a quagmire of its own making. In 1990, at a Midwest Canon Law Conference in Columbus, Ohio, an auxiliary bishop of that state, James Quinn, discussed the burgeoning crisis in remarks taped by a participant, and ultimately reported in the press. ''If there's something you really don't want people to see, you might send it off to the Apostolic Delegate [Vatican ambassador] because they have immunity,'' the bishop, himself a canon lawyer, said. ''Something you consider dangerous, you might send it'' to the embassy.

Hiding damaging files in an embassy safe is a gross violation of diplomatic immunity - and something Doyle had specifically warned against in the report five years earlier. When confronted about his remarks, Quinn was cryptic: ''Whatever I said was my own opinion. It was never discussed with the nunciature,'' as the embassy is called in Latin.

Scores of cases of pedophiliac priests made headlines in the early 1990s. New England was rocked by the revelations of the Rev. James Porter, who pleaded guilty to molesting 28 boys. The Santa Fe archdiocese nearly went bankrupt because of cases involving a treatment center for clergy that allowed weekend parish work by sex offenders who promptly reoffended. Like Dallas, the Santa Fe church had to sell off real estate to make ends meet. Most major cities in America have been hit with such scandals: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Providence - among others.

We have had our share of similar scandals down here. In the 1980s seven clerics in Cajun country were recycled to new parishes, trailed by accusations from their previous postings. Two ended up in prison; the others evaded prosecution but were subject to civil litigation. The diocese ended up paying $22 million to dozens of victims.

Through all these convulsions, the bishops held occasional meetings, and a few spoke out about the need to help victims. But the Vatican developed no response policy nor, most critically, has there to this day been a principled investigation of root causes. In the mid-'90s a group of psychotherapists at US hospitals treating clerical sex offenders asked the bishops to approve a research project, pooling clinicians' findings, assessing causes and patterns. ''The bishops refused,'' says Dr. Leslie Lothstein of the Institute for Living in Hartford. ''Maybe their lawyers were against it. ''

In 1993 Santa Fe's Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez resigned after ''60 Minutes'' reported he had been sexually involved with three young women. Pope John Paul II's response to Sanchez seemed to suggest sin on both sides: He asked the faithful to pray for ''our brother in Santa Fe'' and ''the persons affected by his actions'' - rather than calling them victims. ''A person's fall, which in itself is a painful experience, should not become a matter for sensationalism. Unfortunately, however, sensationalism has become the particular style of our age.'' His remarks were another way of blaming the messenger.

The pope has made statements of regret about priests who have betrayed the trust placed in them - as he did in November in a one-paragraph reference in a 120-page message sent by e-mail to Catholics in Australia, New Zealand, and South Pacific Islands. He has never given a public speech devoted to the crisis or, in any way I am aware of, powerfully allied himself with survivors of predatory priests. Those men, women, and their families deserve better. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, in a 1993 essay in America Magazine, estimated that 2,500 priests had abused 100,000 victims in the United States. The St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has long advocated a uniform policy by which bishops remove offenders and offer treatment - and compassion - to victims.

The bishops claim that they lack the power to impose a policy binding upon each diocese. Rather, they (and their lawyers) say each bishop is answerable to the pope. Some dioceses have review boards to handle allegations; others say they have stiffened the screening process for seminarians.

How can there be any uniform policy until the church hierarchy demonstrates the resolve to investigate the roots and driving causes of this crisis?

The pope has called pedophilia one of the ''graver offenses'' against church law. The Vatican has long emphasized to bishops the need to respect the rights of accused priests under the Code of Canon Law to the point where some bishops have been stymied in trying to defrock such men.

In the last decade hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clergy have made headlines in Australia, Canada, and Europe. The media tend to separate the coverage of such stories from Pope John Paul II. The pope who performed so brilliantly on the geopolitical stage as a catalyst in the fall of Soviet communism and showed rare atonement in reaching out to Jews cannot, so the logic goes, be responsible for every priest.

But when the trail of accusations leads right into the Vatican, the obsession with secrecy and coverup is thrown into high relief.

In 1998 eight former members of the Legion of Christ religious order filed a petition in a Vatican canon law court at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They sought prosecution of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legion's founder. The accusers included a priest retired in Spain and eight Mexicans, among them a professor of Latin American studies with a doctorate from Harvard, a professor of languages, a lawyer, an engineer, a college guidance counselor, a rancher, and a schoolteacher. A ninth man, a former university president and native Spaniard, dictated his own incriminating statement before his death years earlier. The men alleged that Maciel sexually abused them as seminarians in Spain and Rome in the 1950s and '60s. Maciel refused to be interviewed but denied the accusations in written statements.

The first accusation was made by one of the men before he left the priesthood, in a letter sent to the pope by diplomatic pouch in 1978. He received no reply. The Spanish priest also wrote Pope John Paul II with his own accusations. Again, Rome took no action.

The Vatican refuses to comment about Maciel. The pope, however, has showered him with praise as ''an efficacious guide to youth'' and, a year after the first news report, named him to a synod of bishops. In 1999 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger dismissed the canon law petition, giving no reason for his action.

Last year Ratzinger issued new rules to bishops ordering immediate investigations when priests are accused, saying that the Vatican will try such priests in secret trials if necessary.

Why is that hard to believe?

Jason Berry is the author of five books, including ``Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.''

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 2/3/2002.
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