Catholic Clerical Sex Abuse: The Vatican; the American Bishops, and U. S. Church-State Relations

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Catholic Clerical Sex Abuse: The Vatican; the American Bishops, and

U. S. Church-State Relations

Jo Renee Formicola, Ph. D.

Seton Hall University

Draft: Not for publication or re-print, in any form, without the express consent of the author

  1. Introduction

Pope John Paul II has termed clerical sexual abuse as both a grave sin and a crime.1 Speaking as the spiritual leader of the world’s one billion Catholics, the Pope believes that priests who are guilty of the sin of sexual abuse can admit guilt, seek forgiveness, pursue treatment, repent, and change. Acting as a political leader and head of the Vatican State, the Pope also maintains that the Church has the right to prosecute and punish its clergy for the crime of pedophilia, as well. In short, the Vatican has framed the resolution of the sexual abuse scandal, in the United States, within the context of the religious and political power of the Pope. Such a position has the potential to strain Church-State relations and to damage the credibility of the Church as an advocate for human rights in the future.

II. The Legacy, Scope, and Nature of Papal Power
The Papacy is a curious institution. Autocratic in design and practice, it is embodied in John Paul II, from whom power flows directly to the rest of the Church leadership. The Vatican, that is, the territory from which the Pope operates, is unique as well. As both a sovereign state and a religious entity, the Vatican consists of a labyrinth of diplomatic agencies, interlocking directorates, and spiritual offices. It too is an anomaly: a political, yet religious and hierarchical state, within a secular, increasingly democratic world.
The Papacy's origin and legitimacy are traced to Jesus Christ. Catholics hold that Christ passed his mission to teach, preach and sanctify His followers to St. Peter when he said "…thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."2 Traditionally, then, Pope have seen it as part of their broad spiritual responsibility to maintain, protect and advance the freedom of the Church within various ruling infrastructures in order to complete their religious duties.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Popes became involved in governmental affairs by default. In the absence of effective political rulers, they administered the largest existent bureaucracy in Western Europe; maintaining law and order, contact and control over local churches, making hierarchical appointments, managing Church fees, receiving appeals in lawsuits, and even developing the Church's own code of canon law.3 Later, in 800 A. D., Charlemagne took on the protection, defense and extension of the Church as part of his ruling responsibility,4 and Leo III crowned him as Holy Roman Emperor. In so doing, the Pontiff elevated the Papacy to the role of political legitimizer, creating an international diarchy, that is, a system of dual global leadership of Pope and Emperor that lasted for over six centuries. Thus, from its earliest history, the Church's leaders were involved in Church-State affairs, justifying legal and political action to maintain and gain the maximum freedom for the Church to carry out Christ’s spiritual mission.
The expanding power and wealth of the Papacy stimulated commerce, art, guilds and towns, as well as the development of social services and charitable institutions in Western Europe. At the same time, however, Papal excesses and abuses eventually led to Church schisms and a growing need for internal reform. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the hierarchy clarified much of the complex religious doctrine that had developed since the Church's founding, ending notions of group authority as some bishops had been advocating, and declaring the supremacy of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
Subsequent Popes tried to use their religious and political power to fight for Church autonomy, but Catholic prestige, philosophy, and resources were challenged and heavily expended during the Renaissance and the Reformation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the emergence of capitalism and the movement toward liberal democracy further weakened Papal power. The unification of Italy in l870 resulted in Church attempts to reassert religious power, and succeeded when Pius IX’s supporters declared him infallible on matters of faith and morals.
Almost a century later, Pope John XXIII called a general council for the purpose of Church renewal. In l960, Vatican II, as it is known, stressed the Church’s need to support human rights, social justice and ecumenism; to embrace a new world-view, and to participate in attempts to bring about the transformation of society based on the principles of Jesus Christ. A policy of “ostpolitik” or outreach began to characterize Vatican international affairs, with religious engagement becoming the basis for the establishment of diplomatic relations with a host of emerging states.
At the same council, Bishops attempted to gain more authority and asserted the right to establish regional and/or national organizations. The American Bishops established the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,5 a canonical organization, to discuss matters of religious import, particularly as they intersected with the political, economic and social concerns of the Church.6 Even with this concerted power, though, the Bishops could not make binding social, political and religious policy without the approval of the Pope.
Today the Papacy is stronger than ever. John Paul II rules over a one-mile square neutral state created by the Treaty of the Lateran in l929. He controls St. Peter's Basilica, all buildings and palaces, and everything within its proximate environs. The Pope serves as the Chief Executive of the Vatican's infrastructure consisting of its own police force; post office; radio and T. V. station, web-site, newspaper and hospital. He is in charge of all foreign policy and a diplomatic corps that carries out the Vatican's international relations with over l90 other sovereign states. The Pope controls the Vatican totally, and as its administrative leader is capable of carrying out both domestic and foreign affairs without external controls. He appoints the Vatican religious bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia; key diplomats and government employees. They all serve at his pleasure. Unlike Presidents and Prime Ministers, the Pope does not have to stand for reelection, answer to a cabinet, a constituency, or watch the polls. He is accountable to no one. He is free to make foreign policy; to appoint, retire and dismiss government personnel at will; to control all Church finances; and to act as a geopolitical voice of the Vatican.7

  1. The Vatican, the U. S. Bishops and their Responses to the Clerical Sexual Abuse Crisis

As the spiritual leader of Catholics and the political leader of the Vatican, Pope John Paul II exercises his authority through the prism of a theological conservative, a learned philosopher, and an international voice for human dignity. The Pontiff is committed to the belief that the individual is made in the image of likeness of God, i.e., with a human and a spiritual dimension, the notion that impels his political action to advance the worth of each person. At the same time, John Paul is also committed to philosophical to the notion that individuals can transform themselves, specifically because they have a capacity to rise above themselves. Thus, he is convinced that persons can confess sins, be forgiven, repent and reconcile themselves with others and the world. Both his theological and philosophical beliefs are translated politically by John Paul's support for global human rights, social justice and economic development, principles that are championed though his pro-life stance, public opposition to repression, and his support for labor, debt relief and financial aid for developing states.

Why then, has John Paul handled the U. S. clerical sex abuse crisis in the way that he has? Does he see the solution in terms of religion, philosophy, or the law? Does he see it as a risk to his control over the Church in the United States? Or does he see it even more broadly, as a challenge to Church-State relations in America and the rest of the world?
The answers are as complex as the questions. John Paul has been troubled with the problem of clerical sexual abuse all during his Papacy, especially having been made aware of it by the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its administrative arm, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). They began assisting dioceses with the civil liability risks of several child molestation cases as early as l982. Within three years, after the Church dealt with public accusations of sexual misconduct by Father Gilbert Gauthes of Lafayette, Louisiana, the legal department of the Bishop's organization found itself giving uniform "suggestions," to dioceses dealing with clerical sex abuse. They called for removing the offender from his assignment; referring the abuser for medical evaluation; dealing promptly with the victim and his/her family; protecting the "confidential nature of the claim," and complying with the legal obligation to make the appropriate notifications to legal authorities.8 These five guidelines, however, were not binding on the Bishops.
By 1985 individuals within the Church became alarmed about the increasing number of clerical sexual abuse cases, and brought the matter to the NCCB/USCC.9 Lawyers and mental health professionals, they drafted a secret resource paper for the Bishops, defining the scope and nature of the matter as well as the financial and social ramifications of clerical sexual abuse. Various groups studied the problem confidentially until l988, when the Bishop's legal department issued a statement to diocesan officials and followed up with the establishment of systematic study groups to deal with canonical and medical remedies for sexual abuse. Unknown to most, the NCCB/USCC initiated discussions with high-ranking members of the Vatican bureaucracy on matters of treatment, culpability, the Code of Canon Law, and penal provisions for offender priests at that time.
By early 1992, the NCCB/USCC president issued a public statement saying that the Bishops would review information and approaches on how to handle the problem of clerical sex abuse. The original five guidelines, set down initially, were now refined and prescribed officially to deal with accusations.10 Within the year, the Bishops brought together a number of experts for a special meeting in St. Louis to discuss the problem while they also continued discussions with Vatican officials in order to work out recommendations for exceptions to canon law.11 More importantly, their efforts culminated in the formation of a Joint Study Commission with others in Rome to deal with the sexual abuse problem.12

Having been appraised of the situation, John Paul detailed his concern for the dilemma in a letter to the U. S. Bishops in 1993. Reportedly, he said that the priests' conduct was the result of an "irresponsibly permissive," society, one that was "hyper-inflated with sexuality."13 Calling American society the "real culprit," the Pope admitted publicly that lawsuits against U. S. clergy had reached the level of $400 million.14 And in a very candid statement, while in Denver for World Youth Day in August of l993, he castigated the clergy saying: "… at a time when all institutions are suspect, the church herself has not escaped reproach."15

The U. S. Bishops responded to John Paul's accusations with reviews of diocesan policies; public descriptions of treatment centers, ways to care for victims/survivors, and reports of efforts to deal with the matter.16 But, while they tried to find ways to deal with the effects of clerical sexual abuse, no major actions were taken by either the U. S. Bishops or the Vatican to deal with its root causes at that time.
In l995, however, the scandals spread to Ireland and Germany and later to Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Mexico and Poland. The notion that a permissive American society was somehow responsible for clerical sexual abuse in the U. S. suddenly seemed to lose its credibility within Vatican circles, as the matter gained global notoriety. Trying to grasp the cause, the Pope instructed Archbishop Jorge Mejia, a trouble-shooter for the Vatican, to prepare a report on the matter.
By December l998, on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, John Paul referred to the information that had been gathered on the growing crisis of clerical sexual abuse and offered a formal apology to the victims:
In certain parts of Oceania, sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to victims…Sexual abuse within the Church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ. The Synod Fathers wished to apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them. The Church in Oceania is seeking open and just procedures to respond to complaints…and is unequivocally committed to compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community and the offenders themselves.17
In John Paul’s understanding of reconciliation, both apology and true repentance are critical steps for forgiveness and reintegration into the spiritual community. Thus, in the matter of clerical sexual abuse, he began to acknowledge the outrageous behavior of offender priests officially, and to seek forgiveness for the institutional Church in so far as it was culpable for pedophilia and other types of sexual victimization.
In 2001, the Pope issued two documents on clerical sexual abuse. One defined pedophilia as one of the “graver offenses” against Church law. The second charged Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Papal appointee responsible for the maintenance of religious orthodoxy, and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, to issue specific guidelines on how to deal with the problem of clerical sexual abuse.18 Ratzinger sent a letter to all the members of the hierarchy, ordering them that if “even a hint” of pedophilia existed, the Bishop in charge “must open an investigation and inform” Rome of the matter. At the same time, however, he also requested silence from the members of the hierarchy about the matter.19 No mention was made in the document of the responsibility of the Bishop to report clerical sexual abuse to legal authorities.
By early 2002, reports began to appear in the American press that secret trials were being carried out at the Vatican to handle a burgeoning number of cases of pedophilia from around the world.20 The New York Times and The Boston Globe confirmed rumors that the Boston archdiocese had settled 50 lawsuits against Father Joseph Geoghan amounting to about $10 million for incidents of pedophilia from l962 to l995.21 "The picture that emerged was that of a diocese with a cadre of predator priests and a hierarchy that simply refused to confront them and stop them."22
Now seeking to put the sexual crisis into some kind of context, the Pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls shifted the blame from American society in general, to homosexuals in particular. He reportedly said "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained,"23 leaving the Vatican and the Pope open to criticism for over simplifying a much more complex problem.
As the issue proceeded into a full-blown crisis in the spring of 2002, the Pope expressed "great compassion" and "fraternal solidarity" with the U. S. Bishops,24 and charged the bishops, themselves, to resolve the dilemma of clerical sexual abuse. This was out of character since John Paul had often been accused of micromanaging church administration.25 Thus, the Pope's hands-off treatment of the clerical sexual abuse issue surprised everyone, including the U. S. Catholic hierarchy who had been required to submit to the Pontiff in all matters prior to this.
The general public had seen the Pope change his attitude toward clerical sexual abuse several times by 2002--first viewing it as an American problem, then as one based on a permissive society, and finally as behavior nurtured in homosexuality. In reality, recent published reports with members of the Roman Curia reveal that "the Vatican did not recognize the scope of gravity of the problem…despite numerous waning signs; and it rebuffed earlier attempts to reform procedures for removing predator priests."26 The press euphemistically called it a "cultural chasm," a division between American openness and Vatican secrecy; American freedom versus Vatican centralization; a clash of American accountability with Vatican deference and belief in forgiveness.27 Everyone appeared to be at a loss, particularly the American Bishops and their leader, Bishop Wilton Gregory. He was called to Rome to confer with Vatican officials; took responsibility for the handling of the clerical sexual abuse problem, and admitted that the hierarchy had "misplaced" its faith in therapy and the judgements of therapists.28
Underscoring the severity of the crisis, John Paul then summoned Bishop Gregory back to Rome again within days of his return to the United States, along with all the American Cardinals, to give a full accounting of the scandal in April 2002. In what some interpreted as a need to restore trust and credibility to the Church's mission, the call to Rome was considered by others as an attempt at damage control and a way to coordinate a response to the scandal. According to Vatican officials, the meeting was held with three goals in mind: to provide information to those in power at the Holy See about the matter of clerical sexual abuse, to provide a general evaluation of the situation, and to develop ways to move forward in addressing the issues.29 In reality, however, the discussions with John Paul was a way for him to exercise control; to exert Papal authority over the way that the situation would be handled in the United States. Thus, a unified and authoritative approach to the clerical abuse scandal would be directed from Rome, and controlled by the Pope, himself. Catching "everybody off guard," the meeting included the highest-ranking members of the U. S. hierarchy, Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican office of orthodoxy, and the most senior leaders of the Roman Curia.
While awaiting the arrival of the U. S. Cardinals, the Pope met with Cardinal Law of Boston about the crisis of pedophilia in his Archdiocese,30 and ordered a group of Nigerian Bishops to "diligently investigate accusations."31 He began to set the tone for the arrival of the American Cardinals a few days later, remarking on the value of celibacy and the life of chastity, poverty and obedience, thus beginning to grapple with the larger problem of priestly formation and the development of the whole religious person. As he emphasized the need for better seminary training and the ideal of clerical service,32 another shift in Papal thinking was occurring, but not a change in John Paul’s desire to control the outcome of the problem.
At the historic meeting with Bishop Gregory and the American Cardinals, John Paul expressed his grief over the sexual scandals that had occurred in the United States. Characterizing them as "wrong by every standard," and "rightly considered a crime by society" he called pedophilia "an appalling sin in the eyes of God," and offered a profound sense of solidarity and concern to the victims and their families.33 At the same time, he thanked the clergy who dedicated their lives to priestly service, and also admitted to the Church's "generalized lack of knowledge"34 of the nature of the problem.
Instinctively, John Paul returned to the theology that guides and impels him: a belief in dogma that leads him to believe in the ability of the sinner to change. The "power of Christian conversion," he continued, reaches to the depth of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change."35 Still floundering to seek its causes, John Paul contended that the "abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the church but society as a whole."36 "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,"37 he asserted. "We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force."38
On Holy Thursday 2002, in his letter "To Priests" the Holy Father talked of sin, compassion, penitence and forgiveness. Calling on the clergy to rediscover its unique role to represent Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, John Paul emphasized the need for priests to be "true ministers of mercy."39 More specifically, he stressed the need for personal contact between priests and those seeking to come back to Christ. This encounter, he maintained, made the Sacrament of Reconciliation "one of the most effective instruments of personal growth"40 in the development of the person. Consistent with his theology and philosophy, John Paul applied that belief to the sexual scandal that cast a "dark shadow of suspicion…over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and…self-sacrifice." 41 Stressing the fact that Christ extends mercy to the sinner, and that the individual can accept it and transform himself, John Paul's religious notions about those priests involved in clerical sexual abuse could be read between the line, his trust “in the healing power of divine grace” and the calling to the search for holiness.42
During the meeting with the Pope, and obviously attuned to his theological notions, the Cardinals sent a message to the priests of the United States. In solidarity with their sorrow and shame, they expressed their gratitude to the clergy who worked to teach the message of Christ, and pledged the support of the Church "in every possible way through these troubled times."43
Then, in a joint statement, the Cardinals and John Paul affirmed six basic principles with regard to clerical sexual abuse. First, they maintained that it is a crime and an appalling sin, particularly when perpetrated by priests and religious on the young. Second, they asserted that the Church must provide a sense of solidarity and assistance to the victims and their families. Third, all the Church leadership recognized the gravity of the problem, regardless of the number of cases. Fourth, the Cardinals and Pope maintained that there is no link between celibacy and pedophilia. Fifth, Church leaders agreed to promote the correct moral teaching about sexual abuse, to visit seminaries in order to screen those who chose to become candidates to the priesthood and to observe a national day of prayer and penance. And finally, all recognized "the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God."44
John Paul controlled the final communique from the Cardinals. In it, they acknowledged, along with him, the gravity of clerical sexual abuse; they defended the traditional unmarried state of the clergy, and reasserted the theological notion of personal transformation. All of this was done without any erosion of Papal power, or accession to civil authorities to deal with the punishment of ecclesiastical personnel.
Leaving the Vatican, Bishop Gregory expressed his satisfaction with the Papal meeting. He told the press that "He [the Pope] gets it…"45 and that" The church doesn't do crime," he said, "the church does sin."46 Gregory left Rome optimistically, believing that those in power in the Vatican were not judicial obstructionists, but simply men in need of information and understanding. Subsequently, Gregory's impressions proved to be wrong.
His confusion was indicative of everyone's, for the matter was still unsettled. A month later, on 29 May 2002, President George W. Bush met with the Pope and told the Pontiff that he was "concerned about the Catholic Church in America, I'm concerned about its standing. And I say that because the Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution in our country."47 Did this give Vatican officials pause? There is no way to know. But, just before the Bishops prepared to meet for their bi-annual meeting in Dallas in June to discuss the sexual abuse crisis, the Vatican leaked the story that it was concerned about many of the U. S. Bishops' proposals, and urged them to avoid a rush to judgement.48 A source close to the Pope urged that increasing talk of a zero-tolerance policy, public disclosure of misconduct, and the application of national guidelines binding on all Bishops, be considered calmly without emotion or anger.49 Did the Vatican suddenly see the potential interference of the U. S. government in the matter after the visit of the President? Did it lead Vatican officials to fear the imposition of U. S. legal procedures on the freedom of the institutional Church in America to function within its own sphere of influence? Was John Paul simply hedging his bets? Or was John Paul simply reitering his position? Did Bishop Gregory misunderstand the signals being sent by the Vatican, that is, that there was no room in the priesthood for anyone who in the past or the present had molested innocent children?
The forthcoming bi-annual U. S. Bishops' meeting two months later in Dallas was a media circus with gavel to gavel coverage on the Catholic television network (EWTN). It showed the hierarchy struggling to develop a collective response to the clerical sexual crisis through the passage of two documents. The first was The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, its purpose being to help the victims of clerical sexual abuse. The second document under consideration was The Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuses of Minors by Priests or Deacons. Contained within the Charter, its purpose was to set down national standards and to establish a mechanism within the context of both canon and civil law to deal with the treatment of clergymen responsible for pedophilia and other types of sexual abuse.
The Charter was based on the five original guidelines set down by the legal department of the NCCB in l988, and the clarifications of those principles as they were worked out by the American Bishops at their meeting in June l992. It differed from the six principles hammered out by the Cardinals and the Pope in 2002.
First, the Charter called for the Church to promote healing and reconciliation with victims/survivors of the sexual abuse of minors. It stressed outreach, the establishment of mechanisms to respond promptly to allegations, and ended the use of confidentiality agreements unless victims requested such action. Second, the Bishops guaranteed effective responses to allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. These actions included reports to public authorities, and applied even when the person was no longer a minor. Victims would now be advised of their right to make reports to public authorities. The Bishops were required to relieve an alleged offender of his ministerial duty after the preliminary investigation of a complaint and to refer the alleged offender for appropriate medical and psychological evaluation. This would be done "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor--past, present, or future…the offending priest or deacon [would] be permanently removed from ministry."50 Third, the Bishops promised to ensure the accountability of their procedures. They agreed to establish an Office for Child and Youth Protection at their national headquarters and to put in place a National Review Board of the laity that would monitor the implementation of the Charter. 51 Fourth, the Bishops called for the protection of the faithful in the future. To this end, they established safe environment programs, better screening for candidates for the priesthood, and more transparent communications in cases of reassignments.
All of this translated into radical changes in Church administration and pastoral care. The hierarchy, however, was still careful to protect Church personnel, citing exceptions to its policies in the Charter where allegations were "canonically privileged."52 This is where the principles set down in the Essential Norms and incorporated into the Charter became a critical component in the entire solution of the clerical abuse scandal.
The Essential Norms dealt with canon law and reflected a potential clash with civil jurisprudence in the United States. In the original version of the Charter, an alleged predator priest or deacon could be relieved of his ministerial duties after a preliminary investigation of a complaint and referred for appropriate medical and psychological evaluation. When, and if, sexual abuse was admitted or proven, the cleric would be removed from his ministry and offered professional assistance for his own healing and well being. Canon law had to be considered but the Bishop was empowered to dismiss the cleric and to provide canonical counsel. The offender could also be confined to a life or prayer and penance by the Bishop, be denied the right to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb, and to present himself publicly as a priest.

The Bishops’ powers were now very different. With regard to the Charter and their responsibilities in dealing with the crime of clerical sexual abuse, the zero-tolerance policy ended their choices and legal control over their personnel. It eliminated the right of Bishops to refuse to co-operate with the police and others when the person alleged to have been abused was no longer a minor. It placed the onus on the Bishops, rather than the accuser, to bring the matter to the authorities. And, it called for revealing the names of those who had been sanctioned for pedophilia in the past. On the other hand, the Essential Norms elevated the powers of the Bishops within the ecclesiastical order to deal with predator priests and deacons. They redefined terms such as "sexual abuse," the conditions under which alleged offenders could be removed from ministerial duties, and the appeals process set in place under canon law. In short, the Bishops had challenged Vatican directives, and in some cases, even the principles of canon law.

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