Pontiff Reaffirms Rules on Celibacy
As US cardinals gather for crisis session,
pope rejects radical changes
By Charles M. Sennott, Boston Globe Staff - Spring
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
''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
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
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
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'
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 email@example.com.