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John L. Allen, Jr. -
Rest of world skeptical of 'zero tolerance' strategy

Thomas P. Doyle -
Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Eugene Kennedy -
The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Margot Patterson -
Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson -
Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Sandra Schneiders -
The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Rest of world skeptical of ‘zero tolerance’ strategy

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is


Reservations about “zero tolerance” for priests who commit sexual abuse are found across a fairly wide spectrum of international Catholic opinion, according to sources contacted by NCR.

“A zero tolerance policy is definitely not our way of dealing with human limitations, fragility and sins,” said Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, a Japanese nun who serves on her order’s leadership team in Rome.

“Zero tolerance does not reflect the compassionate face of God,” Hirota said.

Though expressed in different terms, that view found an echo from northern Europe.

“I don’t think a 100 percent zero tolerance policy is truly in the interest of the victims,” said Fr. Herman Pottmeyer, a noted German theologian and member of the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory body.

“Each case is different,” Pottmeyer told NCR. “A bishop is not a sheriff’s deputy.”

Though officially the U.S. bishops who meet in Dallas later this week will be crafting policies on sexual abuse only for the American church, inevitably their decisions will have global repercussions, given America’s pacesetter role on the world stage. Moreover, at least some elements of the bishops’ plan will require Vatican approval, and attitudes in Rome are likely to reflect broad international reaction.

In anticipation of the June 13-15 meeting in Dallas, NCR asked a number of observers outside the United States how much interest the sexual abuse story is generating among their constituencies, and how the remedies being considered by the American bishops strike Catholics in their region.

These sources reported varying levels of interest in the crisis, with Europeans and Australians generally following the story closely, while Asians, Africans and Latin Americans said most Catholics in their parts of the world are not terribly engaged.

“Our Muslim friends have been kind enough to suggest that this is in the main an American problem,” said De La Salle Br. Edmund Chia, former secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, based in Bangkok. “That’s because in general few think our local clergy are capable of such things in our part of the world.”

Chia emphasized that there may well be similar cases among Catholic clergy in Asia, but if so, local media have largely ignored them.

In general, the sources said, Catholics from all points of the globe feel shock over the recent revelations of sexual misconduct by U.S. priests, as well as the failure of bishops to intervene when patterns of abusive behavior by certain priests were clear. Also universal is sympathy for the victims of abuse and their families.

At the same time, several observers told NCR they believe the atmosphere of crisis in the United States over the sexual abuse issue is disproportionate.

“It really is exaggerated,” said Alberto Melloni, an Italian church historian. “Pedophilia is a psychiatric disease that touches families and fathers much more than priests. There’s a certain malevolence [towards the Catholic church] under the surface,” Melloni said.

Referring to the fact that President George Bush raised the sex abuse scandals in a recent encounter with Pope John Paul II, Melloni said, “It is unbelievable. Would Bush have accepted a dialogue on Republicans involved in sexual abuses?”

“I hear many voices saying that in the United States money is too quickly involved,” said Fr. Nokter Wolf, a German who serves as abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine community.

“The law can be misused by clever lawyers,” Wolf said.

Hirota voiced a commonly held suspicion among Catholic observers overseas, that all the media focus on the sex abuse issue may serve an ignoble political end.

“Is the media trying to divert public attention from the war against terrorism, or the government’s lack of commitment to support the Kyoto protocol?” she asked. “The problem of sexual abuse definitely is serious. But there are other serious and important issues in today’s world.”

Resistance to “zero tolerance” was common among virtually all the international observers.

“The bishops should defend the fact that the perpetrators are human beings, with a possibility to be treated, and perhaps cured,” Melloni said.

An exception came from Australia, where recent media accounts of payouts by Catholic bishops to settle accusations against priests of sexual abuse offer strong parallels to the U.S. situation.

“If the abuse is of a minor, then Catholics here would not hesitate to support a ‘zero tolerance’ policy and would also believe that the whole case should be immediately handed over to the police,” said church historian Paul Collins, a former Sacred Heart priest.

Collins noted that an Australian bishop recently refused to reinstate an accused priest despite his acquittal in a criminal trial, because the bishop believes there is “plausible evidence” the priest is an offender.

“However, if the alleged abuse does not concern minors,” Collins added, “then there would be no support for any public disclosure or involvement of police.”

Pottmeyer said he believes the American crisis illustrates a broader problem of concern to the universal church.

“I see a crisis of leadership,” Pottmeyer said. “Was the behavior of some bishops dictated by careerism, which Cardinal Bernardin Gantin castigated some years ago? A careerist always wants to make a bella figura,” Pottmeyer said. Melloni agreed.
“This is the real disaster,” he said. “The appointment of bishops has created an episcopate which has to face difficult matters with almost no authority and leadership.”

Fr. Antoine Bodar, a Dutch priest and frequent commentator on church affairs in Holland, said he sees “openness and transparency” as the key qualities the U.S. bishops must exhibit in Dallas, “so the church can regain the people’s trust.”

Wolf agreed, but argued that the due process rights of accused priests must also be protected so that unfounded allegations are not “allowed to destroy the reputation of a person.”

He added one final note.

“The concept of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy should somehow enter the document,” Wolf said. “Reconciliation is a fundamental concept of the good news of Christ.”