Debate continues over pope's reaction to sex-abuse
Alan Cooperman - Washington Post
Apr. 2, 2005
During his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims
for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians
for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican's
associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution
He apologized so often, in fact, that an Italian journalist compiled
a book of more than 90 papal statements of contrition.
Yet the pope never apologized for the most shocking behavior that
came to light on his watch: sexual abuse of children by priests
and the church's attempts to hush it up. To some alleged victims,
that is a puzzling omission and a deep stain on his legacy.
"I would hate to see all the good works this pope has done
over his lifetime be overshadowed by this scandal. But that's what
may happen," said Gary M. Bergeron, of Lowell, Mass., who says
he was molested in the 1970s by Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a priest
accused of abusing more than a dozen altar boys. Birmingham has
John Paul's defenders contend that sexual misconduct by priests
is a worldwide problem that began before he became pope in 1978.
They say once it came to light, he reacted decisively. Summoning
America's cardinals to the Vatican in April 2002, he declared that
"there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for
those who would harm the young."
Those words became the basis for the "zero tolerance"
policy adopted two months later by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops. Over the following year, hundreds of priests resigned,
retired or were suspended as the bishops pledged to remove any clergyman
who had ever abused a minor.
But victims' advocates argue that John Paul could have done more,
and they hope his successor will set a new tone, beginning with
a straightforward apology to victims.
Bergeron and other Boston-area survivors of clergy abuse traveled
to Rome in 2003 to try to persuade the pope to meet with victims,
issue an apology and condemn coverups. The small delegation included
Bergeron's father, Joseph, who said that he, too, was abused as
an altar boy but kept silent until he discovered many years later
that the same thing had happened to two of his sons.
For five days that March, the Bergerons literally knocked on Vatican
doors. Eventually they saw an official from the papal secretary
of state's office. John Paul never met with them or any other known
Still churchgoing Catholics, the Bergerons said they believe the
pope was kept in the dark by his aides. "It's almost like a
movie star complex where they don't let them read the bad press,"
Gary Bergeron said.
Others are more harsh in their judgments.
"I would say there's a significant amount of responsibility
in the lap of the papacy for the sexual abuse crisis, not only in
the United States but around the world," said Rev. Thomas Doyle,
a former Air Force chaplain who has counseled many victims and advised
them on lawsuits against the church. "Given that the Vatican
insists on hierarchical authority and micromanagement, I think they
have to take responsibility."
As a young canon lawyer in the mid-1980s, Doyle worked at the Vatican's
embassy in Washington during the first major sexual abuse scandal
in the U.S. church, which centered on a Louisiana priest, Gilbert
"Reports went over there, detailed reports," Doyle said.
"I can tell you for certain that it reached the Vatican early
in 1985, because I was working at the Vatican Embassy and I know
that communications about the Gauthe case were sent to the Vatican
- and they were seen by the pope."
But John Paul did not speak publicly about sexual abuse by priests
until eight years later, after a furor over another pedophile priest,
James Porter, who had more than 100 alleged victims in Fall River,
Addressing a group of visiting U.S. bishops in Rome in 1993, the
pope said he shared their "sadness and disappointment when
those entrusted with the ministry fail in their commitment, becoming
a cause of public scandal." Much of his message, however, was
an attack on "sensationalism" in the news media, leaving
the strong impression that he believed the sex abuse problem was
exaggerated in America.
"Woe to societies where scandal becomes an everyday event,"
Nevertheless, at the request of U.S. bishops, the pope in 1994
changed church law in the United States to lengthen the statute
of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse to 10 years from the
victim's 18th birthday. Previously, it had been five years from
the date of the offense.
In 2002, a fresh scandal erupted when a Boston judge released church
documents showing that Cardinal Bernard Law and his assistant bishops
had secretly shuffled abusers from parish to parish. In response,
John Paul amended canon law again by accepting the bishops' zero
tolerance policy, though only after Vatican officials insisted on
changes to protect the due process rights of accused priests. Law
later resigned under pressure.
In recent years the pontiff also condemned sexual abuse more directly
and forcefully. In his address to U.S. cardinals in April 2002,
he said it was "rightly considered a crime by society"
as well as "an appalling sin in the eyes of God."
"To the victims and their families, wherever they may be,
I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," he
added. It was the closest he came to an apology.
To many victims and their families, however, the pope's actions
fell short. Under John Paul, they contend, the Vatican was more
aggressive about stamping out dissent within the priesthood over
birth control than it was about protecting children.
"Everyone blames the bishops, but the pope's the one who picks
them," Doyle said.
Papal biographer George Weigel argues that the critics' portrayal
of an uncaring John Paul is wrong. He said John Paul was "deeply,
deeply grieved" by the unholy actions of supposedly holy men.
Other Vatican officials have echoed the papal denunciations. As
recently as March 25, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's theological
watchdog and one of John Paul's closest aides, made an apparent
reference to clerical sex abuse in the meditations he provided for
Good Friday observances in Rome. In a Vatican translation, Ratzinger
assailed "how much filth there is in the church ... even among
... the priesthood...."
Like many traditionalist Catholics, Weigel contends that the origins
of the scandal lie in the 1960s, under previous popes who tolerated
dissent and allowed a gay subculture to develop in the priesthood.
The solution, in his view, is to continue down the path set by John
Paul: strict fidelity to church teachings that support celibacy
for priests and condemn homosexual activity.
In his 2002 book, "The Courage to Be Catholic," however,
Weigel acknowledged that the Vatican was slow to recognize the crisis
in the U.S. church, tending to view the scandal as a creation of
the secular news media, opportunistic lawyers and the church's enemies.
Debate over the pope's degree of responsibility for the scandal
appears likely to continue for years.
Richard R. Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic studies at the
University of Toledo who has written several books on authority
in the church, said that neither John Paul nor any church leader
"consciously encouraged" clerical sex abuse.
But Gaillardetz said he would assign the pope some indirect responsibility
for the hierarchy's attempts to hide the problem.
"He encouraged an ecclesiastical culture that emphasizes vertical
accountability - priest to bishop, bishop to the pope - and very
little horizontal accountability" of bishops to one another
and to the laity, Gaillardetz said.
"In general that is going to be one of the most serious criticisms
leveled against this papacy, that he turned away from the direction
many people saw in Vatican II, which is the principle of subsidiarity
or decentralized control," Gaillardetz added, referring to
the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "That is a disturbing
pattern, a larger pattern of this pontificate."
David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church,"
a 2003 book about long-term change in the church, also attributes
the coverup partly to John Paul's insistence on central control.
"The bottom line is: Cardinal Law was the pope's favorite
son in America, and Cardinal Law's sense of a corporate church that
he ran, with everybody else on a need-to-know basis, was very much
an attitude that came from Rome. Rome did not want scandals. Rome
under this papacy was focused on exalting the iconic image of the
priest," Gibson said.
Rightly or wrongly, Gibson contends, the sexual abuse scandal and
John Paul will be inextricably linked.
"After so many years as pope, people have almost begun to
forget what a heroic figure he was and how close he came to being
martyred on St. Peter's Square," he said. "The scandal
is not going to define his legacy, but it does mean that every obituary,
every discussion of his legacy, will have to say, 'But ...' "