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Vatican Playing Catch-Up on Pedophilia

San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 2002
By Stephanie Salter

Several years ago when I was co-writing a series about financial and sexual corruption in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, a priest friend offered some insight into the church leadership's maddening code of silence. During his pre-Vatican II days in the seminary, he said, he'd been given some appalling advice from a long-time monsignor:

"He said that the formula for being a successful pastor was simple. Treat the people like mushrooms -- give them lots of manure and keep them in the dark."

I am reminded of the long (and pernicious) shelf-life of that mentality almost every time I see the Roman Catholic hierarchy attempt to deal with a serious internal problem that has spilled into public. No matter how pastoral the intentions of church leaders, the execution of the intentions often looks like too little, too late, gestures weighted towards saving face rather than genuine repair.

Take recent reports about new Vatican rules for handling priests accused of child sex abuse. Instead of mitigating an institutional ill that has hurt good priests and damaged the church's credibility (not to mention its pocketbook), the changes are so late in arriving, they'll likely engender as much resentment as comfort. Their presentation guarantees mistrust.

Typically, the new priest/pedophilia rules were not announced publicly to those of us who make up the globe's great unwashed flock of practicing Catholics. Approved last year by Pope John Paul II, they instead "surfaced," as the Associated Press put it, on Jan. 8, amid the Vatican's annual roundup of documents -- published in Latin.

Official notification had been confined months before to bishops and heads of religious orders and came in the form of a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a trusted lieutenant of the pope and one of the most powerful men in the Vatican. According to Melinda Henneberger of the New York Times, Ratzinger's letter carried a cover "specifically asking recipients not to divulge the information contained in the letter."

As for content, not all is yet known, but the rules hardly appear to be the panacea for sex abuse by clergy that the Catholic Church dearly needs.

On the plus side, the new policy echoes a sincerely apologetic pope, recognizing priest pedophilia as one of the more serious transgressions in the church. It also requires a bishop or head of an order to investigate "even a hint" of child sex abuse and report the findings to the Vatican.

Given that dioceses around the world have racked up an estimated $1 billion in legal fees and payouts for sex abuse cases, such centralized, mandated reporting is wise. Given that some 15 years have passed since the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican with a degree in Catholic canon law, submitted a 93-page report to U.S. bishops describing the nature, scope and severity of this country's pedophile priest problem, the changes are way overdue.

Other aspects of the new policy do not look so healthy. Under Ratzinger's purview, accused clergy can be tried in confidential -- some say "secret" -- Vatican-supervised tribunals. As part of that court process, accusers must lodge their charges no more than 10 years after their 18th birthday. No matter the circumstances of the alleged abuse nor its effects.

An unnamed but high-ranking Vatican official told the Times that the new rules are meant to "protect the rights of the accused." Anyone who has observed the sad unfolding of clergy pedophile cases worldwide knows that protections for accused priests rarely have been threatened.

Quite the contrary. Until U.S. bishops finally began to face the growing crisis in 1994, until civil juries began awarding multimillion dollar judgments to victims, and local law enforcement agencies overcame their fear of throwing parish priests in jail, decades of molestation were ignored, denied, discounted, covered up and -- to the detriment of all involved, especially the abusers -- perpetuated.

Wednesday, I'll examine two such cases now in the news. That one of the cases recently was dropped without explanation by Ratzinger's office, speaks to just how far the church still lags in addressing, let alone curing, the ill of sex abuse in its own body.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests