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Spotlight Report

  E.J. Dionne Jr.  

What the American bishops can teach Rome


JUST WHEN AMERICA'S Catholic bishops are sending strong signals that they are taking the pedophilia crisis seriously, along comes a senior church official to suggest that the primary problem is not that priests abused children, but that someone dared to put the story in the media.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras is mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. After what he told the influential Italian Catholic monthly Thirty Days, every Catholic - and anyone who wishes the church well - should pray that he doesn't get the job.

In his interview, Rodriguez Maradiaga accuses the American media of acting with ''a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero and, more recently, Stalin and Hitler'' and declares: ''The church should be free of this kind of treatment.''

After attacking Ted Turner of AOL Time Warner for being ''openly anti-Catholic,'' he goes on to insist that ''newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe'' are ''protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church.''

For good measure, he sees Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law - under challenge for transferring pedophilic priests from one assignment to another - as the victim of a ''witch hunt.'' For Rodriguez Maradiaga, the investigation into Law recalls ''the dark days of Stalinist trials of churchmen of Eastern Europe.''

Now, I'm a Catholic and I don't like anti-Catholicism any more than the cardinal does. But Rodriguez Maradiaga's metaphors are nothing short of grotesque. They demonstrate such a profound misunderstanding of the difference between free and unfree societies as to suggest that the cardinal has never studied the church's documents on religious liberty or John Paul's statements on the subject.

Nero and Diocletian may be ancient history, but does anyone need to be reminded that Hitler and Stalin systematically killed millions of innocent people? To suggest that there is even the remotest comparison to be made between the actions of these wretched dictators and press revelations of genuine wrongdoing on the part of priests and bishops is to trivialize the worst crimes of the 20th century.

And what sense of due process does the cardinal have when he can compare the lawsuits and prosecutions being brought in the United States with ''the dark days of Stalinist trials of churchmen of Eastern Europe?''

Perhaps his statements are not surprising. The cardinal recently told a news conference that ''it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of pastor to that of cop.'' He went on: ''I'd be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests.'' Which means what - that ''a pastor'' should protect priests who commit crimes? Are self-protection and institutional preservation the priorities of church leadership?

Rodriguez Maradiaga seems not to realize that his statements will discredit the very case he wants to make.

Anti-Catholicism exists. Many Catholics who are profoundly angry about the pedophilia crisis are also continually frustrated that the church is presented - by its enemies especially, but in the mainstream media, too - as if sex and the church's attitudes toward sex are the sum total of the Catholic story.

Even Catholics who favor an end to the all-male celibate priesthood think it's a libel against thousands of good and decent celibate priests to suggest that the celibacy rule itself makes pedophilia inevitable. Prejudice against Catholics should be fought with no less enthusiasm than prejudice against other religious groups. And, yes, liberals who frequently tangle with the church on such issues as abortion and euthanasia may especially need reminding on this.

But the church's own answer should be reform, not denial of real shortcomings. The cardinal - and here, I fear, he speaks for many in Rome - seems unaware that the public outrage in the United States has not been created by the likes of Ted Turner. The anger is felt most deeply by faithful, orthodox, and, in so many cases, conservative Catholics who cannot understand the contradiction between what the church teaches about protecting the innocent and the exploitation of their trust by those in authority.

When the American bishops meet this week in Dallas, they have to show that they've repented and learned lessons from this scandal. But Rodriguez Maradiaga's comments suggest that the American church leadership has an additional responsibility: to explain to Catholic officials in Rome and elsewhere that disclosure and accountability are not the weapons of Stalinists, Hitlerites, or anti-Catholics. They are the means through which free and faithful people discover wrong and try to right it.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2002.
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