Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Vatican and Pope Stumble in Response to Abuse Crisis

March 30, 2010
Vatican and Pope Stumble in Response to Abuse Crisis
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has been ramping up its defense of how Pope Benedict XVI and the church have handled a growing sexual abuse scandal. But deflecting criticism has proved challenging for this papacy.

Even as the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said that the crisis has threatened the “moral credibility” of the church, he acknowledged in an interview this week that he had not personally discussed the abuse crisis with the pope, a fact he attributed to the structure of the Vatican’s communications apparatus.

“The pope has never avoided the problems of the church,” Father Lombardi said of the sexual abuse issue in an interview on Monday. “He has always expressed his very deep pain and his very deep awareness of the seriousness of what has happened.”

That message may not be getting across, Vatican analysts say, partly because Benedict, a reserved theologian long immersed in doctrinal issues, seems to have little interest in communications.

“I don’t think you’ll ever have the Vatican handle something like this the way a big P.R. firm in the States would, with big press conferences,” said an American archbishop who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid ruffling relations with the Holy See. “They’re rather defensive at the moment, convinced it’s a vendetta against the Holy Father.”

Yet at the same time, the archbishop said, entrenched bureaucracy has also made it tougher for the Vatican to make its case publicly. “I just don’t think there’s that much discussion,” he said, adding that there was “not much regard” for “public relations.” He continued, “It’s just kind of a naïveté about how to face these rather significant challenges in a way that will come across to the people in the pews.”

The pressure on Benedict has grown especially intense because of questions over the role of the pope, as an archbishop in Munich three decades ago, in handling the case of a pedophile priest permitted to continue pastoral work. The Vatican has insisted that Benedict bears no responsibility for the matter, and one of his aides has taken the blame.

The Vatican has tended to label such news coverage as “attacks” that “have undoubtedly proved harmful.” But it has declined to discuss his role in the matter in any detail, insisting that the church has already amply demonstrated the pope’s “nonresponsibility” in the matter. “It would not be right for him to take a personal responsibility for things or errors that he didn’t make,” Father Lombardi said in the interview.

By the standards of any secular state or multinational corporation, that response might seem aloof. But by the standards of the Vatican, a slow-moving, bureaucratic monarchy that tends to communicate indirectly and in ciphers — St. Peter’s successor generally does not give news conferences — the response is seen as relatively forceful.

Benedict’s strongest response to the latest crisis was a long letter earlier this month to Roman Catholics in Ireland, following government reports that documented a cover-up of decades of widespread sexual abuse.

In the letter, he spoke of the “serious sins committed against defenseless children,” and he directly blamed Ireland’s bishops. “It must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred,” Benedict said. The pope called for a special Vatican inquiry into unspecified dioceses.

He also accepted the resignation of two Irish bishops, and several others have also offered to resign. But his approach was dismissed as inadequate by some Irish critics, who criticized Benedict for not disciplining bishops complicit in the cover-up.

The pope’s reluctance to advocate specific penalties for bishops who made mistakes in handling such cases has resonance after it emerged that Benedict had been sent a memo about the return to parish work of an abuser priest in Munich while the future pope was archbishop there in 1980. The Vatican has insisted that Benedict did not know that the priest, who went on to molest other children, had returned to work.

Critics of Benedict also have cited the case of a Wisconsin priest and serial molester who was not defrocked despite direct appeals by letter to the future pope, when he headed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from the Milwaukee archbishop, according to documents provided by a lawyer suing the church on behalf of victims. The Vatican has said the priest’s advanced age and poor health, plus the many decades that had passed since the abuse, justified his not being dismissed from the clergy.

Benedict’s defenders say he should be credited with overhauling the church’s response to abuse cases and taking specific action in at least one high-profile matter, an investigation into the founder of the Legionaries of Christ religious order, after such cases were consolidated under his control in 2001.

In an interview on Monday, Father Lombardi said he had not discussed the abuse crisis with Benedict. “No, if I have to be honest, no,” he said. But he said it was “something I’ve obviously discussed a lot with the secretary of state in recent weeks,” he said of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, formerly Benedict’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I don’t consider being the pope’s spokesman a personal task, but rather as an institutional one,” Father Lombardi said, adding that he oversaw the Vatican Press Office as well as Vatican Radio.

In many ways, Father Lombardi, a well-intentioned and overextended Jesuit priest, provides a contrast to Pope John Paul’s longtime spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a psychiatrist and journalist skilled at shaping a message who was part of John Paul’s inner circle.

“The expectation for a public response from the pope was created by John Paul,” said Paul Elie, the author of a book on 20th-century Catholic writers who has reported from the Vatican. “John Paul said and did so many dramatic things in public that people naturally now expect the pope to act publicly and dramatically in a crisis.”

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