Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Should the Vatican admit?

Should the Vatican Come Clean on Clerical Sexual Abuse?
Monday February 7, 2011
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That's essentially what John Allen, the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, argues in "Avoiding the blame game on abuse." In building his case that Vatican officials should quit pointing fingers at one another, Allen points to a 1997 letter to bishops in Ireland warning them against adopting a mandatory reporting policy concerning clerical sexual abuse, as well as a letter from 1984 to the bishop of Tucson, Arizona, concerning nonsexual misconduct by a priest. There is, he suggests, enough blame to go around, and it does no good to handle each new revelation separately.

Instead, Allen suggests, the Vatican should acknowledge that

until very recently, the primary concerns vis-à-vis cooperation with police and prosecutors, aside from the sanctity of the confessional, were the following:

•Preserving the church’s independence from the civil sphere, a value encoded in the Vatican’s DNA after centuries-long battles to fend off kings, emperors and dictators;
•Protecting an accused priest’s right to his good name;
•Defending a bishop’s right to confidential exchanges with his priests.
Some readers may be surprised to find that Allen argues that "The values listed above are entirely legitimate, and it’s no scandal that Vatican officials strove to defend them."

He's right. Where Allen goes somewhat wrong is in what he fails to say. As Twitter user Londiniensis put it, "All this also at a time when both church and society's attitude to/knowledge of child sex abuse was minimal [and] also at a time when the scale of the problem was unimaginable." The latter was especially true in the Vatican. Individual bishops on the ground knew much more about the scale of the problem than the hierarchy in Rome did, and all too often they kept it from officials in the Vatican—something that anyone who has covered the clerical sexual-abuse scandal knows, but which Allen doesn't mention.

Allen believes that responding to each new revelation about Vatican documents and directives is playing a losing game. He would rather have Vatican officials come clean about what they had hoped to accomplish, and to acknowledge that they should have responded more strongly much earlier.

There are two problems with Allen's proposed course of action, however: First, the truth won't satisfy the critics of the Church, because in the fever dreams of SNAP and VOTF and abuse attorney Jeffrey Anderson, the problem didn't stem from a lack of awareness in Rome but from a deliberate attempt at the highest levels of the Catholic Church to cover up horrific crimes (and even to perpetrate and perpetuate such crimes).

And second, Allen's proposed course of action has already been tried (which is why we know it won't work). Indeed, Allen himself has reported on it. Last year, during the new "crisis" largely manufactured by the New York Times and Jeffrey Anderson, Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict himself, spoke at length about the changes made in 2001 to consolidate control over cases of clerical sexual abuse in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is, in the hands of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

More than implicit in all of that discussion, and explicit in Pope Benedict's statements on clerical sexual abuse, was an acknowledgment that the Vatican had not understood the scale of the problem and had addressed it a haphazard manner before 2001. Yet every admission, implicit or explicit, led to further attacks.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Vatican's current response is, in Allen's words, "to counterpunch" whenever a new document comes to light?

Allen's solution may be naive, but his analysis of how we got to this point is very good (except, as I noted above, where he fails to say some things that need to be said). It's well worth a read. And once you've had a chance to digest it, tell us what you think in the comments.

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