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U.S. Catholics, Vatican have different views of sex-abuse scandal

ROME—The decision by Vatican officials to have Cardinal Bernard Law preside over a high-profile mourning Mass for the late pope is the latest example of the chasm that separates how senior Vatican officials view the priest sex-abuse scandal and the way many American Catholics see it.

While Pope John Paul II and other senior Vatican officials repeatedly condemned child sex abuse by priests and endorsed American bishops' efforts to combat it, church officials in Rome never saw the revelations as the kind of confidence-shattering, life-changing event that many Americans did.

Some senior church officials—including Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, who's considered a strong papal candidate—continually suggested that the scandal was a creation of the American news media.

"We all know that Ted Turner is openly anti-Catholic, and he is the owner not just of CNN but of Time Warner," Rodriguez said inaccurately in May 2002, in a broadside accusing the former CNN chairman and U.S. news outlets of "persecuting" the church. He suggested it was because of the Vatican's pro-Palestinian outlook. Rodriguez continues to stand by his remarks.

Such comments led many Americans to wonder whether the Vatican grasped the nature of the scandal—that it wasn't just about the age-old problem of child sex abuse, but about an institutional cover-up.

Now with the church about to pick a new pope, Law's role as the only American to lead a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II underscores how wide that gap is between the Vatican and American Catholics on the sex-abuse scandal.

For many Americans, Law is the symbol of church negligence, the person who as Boston's archbishop knowingly shuffled abuser-priests among parishes without informing the authorities. For many in the Vatican, he's a well-regarded scholar and churchman.

The priest-abuse scandal "never cut so deeply and so personally in Rome as it did in the U.S., and especially in Boston," said the Rev. Thomas Williams, dean of the school of theology at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University here and a native of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "For Americans, and especially Bostonians, it takes a very small thing to kind of reopen a wound. Here in Rome, it's considered basically over and done with."

Law was forced to resign as Boston archbishop in 2002. After a sabbatical, he was given the job of archpriest of St. Mary Major, one of Rome's four "patriarchal basilicas." In that role, he was tapped to preside over Monday's Mass, one of nine during the official period of papal mourning that follows the funeral.

Some key Roman Catholic voices were aghast.

"I thought it was very foolish of the hierarchy to ask him, and I thought it was foolish and not gracious for him to accept," said Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, principal author of a groundbreaking report last year that was published along with a study showing that nearly 11,000 children—and perhaps as many as 14,000—were sexually abused by Catholic priests in the United States over the last five decades.

"Here the church has this magnificent opportunity after the response to the pope's death. It should not have been marred by something like this," Bennett added. "Is this a mistake they made, is it something they didn't think through, or it is, `Well, we don't really care about the folks in the United States?'"

Nicholas P. Cafardi, who chairs the National Review Board, which was appointed by U.S. bishops to monitor how the church responds to priest abuse, said he didn't think Vatican officials understood how wounded U.S. Catholics might feel over Law's role.

"It makes them look insensitive, and that's not what we need right now," the Duquesne University Law School dean said.

Of the 11 American cardinals, only Philadelphia's Justin Rigali, who spent 33 years working in the Vatican, attended the Law-led Mass Monday. Some reports suggested that the other Americans stayed away intentionally. A spokeswoman for Rigali said she was unable to reach him in Rome for comment.

The culture clash between the Vatican and the American church over the abuse scandal is about more than one man's role, and it's deeply felt by U.S. theologians and other Americans who closely follow the church in Rome.

National Catholic Reporter correspondent John L. Allen Jr. devoted an 89-page chapter in his latest book, "All the Pope's Men," to examining how and why each side viewed the priest scandal differently—and misunderstood each other.

Allen argues that Vatican officials were stunned that litigants could win multimillion-dollar judgments against the Catholic Church under the American civil justice system. Many of the Vatican officials come from societies that lack the awareness of sexual abuse that Americans have, he says, and they didn't understand that for Americans, the cover-up by a trusted yet secretive, unaccountable institution was as outrageous as the individual crimes.

They were also shocked by the American news media's intense focus on the problem.

"Our democratic system brings things to light with the media in a way that is different from other cultures, which prefer to deal with such matters in private," said the Rev. Keith F. Pecklers, a professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Allen, theologian Williams and others also contend that Latin cultures, including Italy and the Vatican bureaucracy, tend to emphasize forgiveness and redemption more than Anglo-Saxon cultures do. Americans misunderstand that as arrogance or insensitivity to victims.

"What Americans call `sheltering,' church officials in other parts of the world often think of as `giving a second chance,'" Allen said by e-mail.

But some advocates for victims of priest abuse argue that the Vatican has never taken priest abuse seriously except as a public relations debacle.

"You can't get around the fact that the Vatican has ignored the problem and has tried to stonewall and deny it under this papacy," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who warned the Vatican about priest abuse in 1985.

"The problem is that they don't adequately appreciate what Law did," he said. "All that other stuff is nonsense. Forgiveness is one thing, but forgiveness does not in any way mitigate the pain that these victims have suffered."

Illinois Appeals Court Justice Anne Burke, who chaired the National Review Board before Cafardi, said when she and Bennett twice traveled to Rome to meet with senior Vatican cardinals, they were pleasantly surprised by the officials' probing questions and apparent interest in the findings of their far-reaching investigation into the priest abuse problem.

But, Burke said, "It doesn't appear that they have paid much attention" to the failings of the hierarchy.

David Clohessy, the director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the Vatican's reaction to the scandal "belated, begrudging and blaming, and with a real contradiction between word and deed."

He added: "On the one hand, the pope says there is no place in the church for someone who would harm the young. And yet very few who abused have been defrocked, and none of the enablers, not one, has experienced one iota of consequence from Rome."

The scandal isn't over, he argued, noting that The Dallas Morning News, in a multipart, ongoing series, has tracked down dozens of priests who'd been accused or convicted of sexually abusing children one country—often the United States—and yet were ministering in another, often in the developing world. Reporters found several of the priests working in Rome.

The Vatican declined to respond to the newspaper's findings.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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