By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
a year now, I’ve been trying to persuade Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of
Honduras, a rising star in the Catholic hierarchy and widely seen as a possible
future pope, that he should clear the air concerning his controversial comments
in June last year about the American sexual abuse crisis.
In an interview with the
respected Italian magazine 30 Giorni, Rodriguez complained of media
“persecution” of the Catholic church in the United States. In fiery language
that shocked and angered many Americans, he compared the media’s treatment of
the church to anti-Christian crackdowns under Nero, Diocletian, Hitler and
Stalin. The overheated vocabulary cemented images of church leaders abroad as
“in denial,” eager to “blame the messenger” for the church’s problems.
Making things worse,
Rodriguez’s suggestion that the American press had sought to punish the Catholic
church in part for its support of the Palestinians revived, albeit
unintentionally, stereotypes about Jewish domination of the American press and
Jewish enmity for the church.
Fallout was swift. Fr.
Andrew Greeley called Rodriguez “clueless,” and that was among the more generous
reactions. Rodriguez said he got a flood of mail, much of it “insulting and
terrible.” Many American bishops with whom I spoke afterwards said they found
the comments unhelpful.
Obviously, I was obliged
to report what Rodriguez had said. At the same time, I knew that the controversy
was producing a distorted image of the man, because Rodriguez is not a crusty
foreign prelate out of touch with America or modernity. He’s a dynamic
60-year-old, whose near-flawless English reflects years of study, lecturing and
travel in the United States. Neither is he a defensive cultural warrior who sees
enemies of the church under every rock; he studied with the German liberal
theologian Bernard Häring in Rome after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65),
and is generally located on the church’s moderate-to-progressive wing.
After months of
hesitation, Rodriguez finally agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview July
7, on the occasion of his keynote address to the Caritas International general
assembly in Rome. Even as we got started, however, Rodriguez’s reluctance to
reopen old wounds was obvious.
“Do you really think we
need to talk about this?” he asked.
I did, and thus we arrived
at the bottom line: Would he recant?
don’t repent,” Rodriguez said. “Maybe I was a little strong, but sometimes it’s
necessary to shake things up.”
Rodriguez hurried to add that he did not question the suffering of victims of
sexual abuse, or deny the failures of some bishops to intervene when they should
have known better. What he wanted to raise, he said, is a question of emphasis.
He grants that the sex abuse crisis is a legitimate story. But, he asks, is it
legitimately the story?
its most provocative form, Rodriguez’s challenge is this: In a world of massive
poverty, racism, and environmental degradation, in which drug trafficking is
choking off democracy in Latin America and HIV/AIDS menaces a generation of
Africans, in which 1.2 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water,
in which the combined annual income of 12,000 laborers at a Nike factory in
Indonesia is less than one American basketball player is paid for wearing their
shoes, does the sexual abuse of minors by perhaps 2 percent of Catholic priests
really merit saturation coverage? In a world dominated by the profit motive and
the pleasure principle, is the Catholic church really public enemy number one?
On the scale of the world’s
problems that the American media might address, with all of its awesome capacity
to focus public attention, where does the sex abuse crisis really rate?
To understand where
Rodriguez is coming from, one needs to begin with his pastoral situation in
Honduras — starting with the challenge of simply staying alive. In recent
months, Rodriguez has received death threats from Colombian-based drug cartels
using Honduras as a conduit. Rodriguez has denounced them, and threats have been
called into both his office and his residence. In February, the doorman from the
chancery in Tegucigalpa was kidnapped, manhandled, and told to tell his boss
that the cartel was coming.
is not just idle chatter. Though the circumstances remain murky, Mexican
Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo was murdered at the Guadalajara airport in May 1993
by gunmen linked to Colombia’s Arellano-Felix narcotics syndicate. Rodriguez
said that he lives with the possibility that something similar could happen to
him, but is not willing to let that compromise his witness.
not afraid,” he said. “I am at peace with whatever might come.”
the economic front, Rodriguez says things are getting worse, not better, for his
people. He said that the number one source of income in Honduras today is not
traditional industries such as coffee or bananas, which have been devastated by
shifts in the global economy, but currency sent home from illegal Honduran
immigrants in the United States. At the same time, he said, he watched the U.S.
government pressure Honduras into sending troops to take part in the Iraq war,
and he wonders when the United States will show the same interest in economic
and social development.
have been forgotten,” Rodriguez said. “We were noticed for a few minutes after
Hurricane Mitch [in November 1998], and then we disappeared.”
all of this, Rodriguez sees the Catholic church in the United States as perhaps
the lone social institution with either the interest or the capacity to speak
for the voiceless millions in Latin America and across the Third World. To see
the church under assault by the same North American media establishment that he
believes ignores the suffering of his people stirs deep frustration.
Rodriguez’s remarks last June are best understood not as a sober content
analysis of the American press, but a cri de coeur.
people said that I am against the media, but this isn’t true,” Rodriguez said.
“Sexual abuse is heartbreaking and victims deserve compassion. What I’m against
is the lack of global perspective.”
comments about the Palestinians are to be understood in this context. His intent
was not to blame Jews, but to raise the profile of struggling peoples
Whatever one concludes about Rodriguez’s analysis, he makes a provocative point,
and one that future historians of the crisis will have to confront.
* * * * *
Rodriguez said he draws two other lessons from the American situation.
First, he said, he hopes the crisis is teaching the American bishops a new style
“Bishops of the First World sometimes saw themselves as related to wealth, power
and privilege,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve even seen that in the Vatican, where First
World bishops are sometimes treated with more respect than bishops from the
Third World, because they are seen as VIPs.”
“Perhaps this is calling the bishops to become servants, closer to the people,”
Second, Rodriguez said, the vast public reaction to his comments taught him
something about the unique role he now plays as a papabile — a papal
candidate. Everything he says is now followed by a global audience. While he
says he has no ambition to be pope, he wants to use his bully pulpit to promote
the cause of justice, especially for Latin America.
has given me this voice to speak for those who are forgotten. He’s looking after
the poor, the little ones,” Rodriguez said.
* * * * *
For all those who believed
it would be a massive drop in financial contributions from the United States
that really got the Vatican’s attention on the American sex abuse crisis, the
annual financial statement from the Holy See for 2002 holds some major
Not only did giving from
the United States not fall in 2002, which represented the peak period of the sex
abuse crisis, it actually rose. Americans are once again in first place among
nations that contribute the most to the annual operating expenses of the
Vatican, finishing ahead of Germany and Italy.
Moreover, the Vatican
registered an astonishing increase in worldwide contributions, with the total
rocketing from $41million in 2001 to $96.7 million in 2002. (The increase is
slightly less dramatic than it sounds due to an 18 percent decline in the value
of the dollar over the past year, but it’s still impressive).
Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani,
the president of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs for the Holy See, presented
the 2002 report to the press July 10. He declined to give a specific figure for
how much the U.S. contributions went up in 2002, but confirmed that there was an
Overall, the Vatican
registered a deficit in 2002 of $15.2 million, the second straight year it
finished in the red. The result was attributed to losses in the financial sector
and rising costs for personnel and diplomatic missions. The report listed
revenues of $245 million and costs of $260 million.
But the striking jump in
contributions from dioceses, religious orders, foundations, associations,
private organizations and individuals suggests that the much-feared (or,
depending on one’s point of view, much-anticipated) collapse in financial
support related to the American scandals simply did not materialize.
Contributions last year to
Peter's Pence, which are destined for charities supported by the pope, were also
up slightly. The report did not give a breakdown by country, but said the total
received for Peter's Pence was about $53 million, up nearly 2 percent from 2001.
The Vatican went through
23 money-losing years until 1993. The situation turned around after bishops from
around the world agreed to directly assist the Vatican. But it found itself in
the red again in 2001, blaming the $3 million deficit on the worldwide financial
slump aggravated by the Sept. 11 attacks.
The report said the
Vatican had heavy personnel costs — it employs 2,659 people in Rome — while it
faced new costs for building more diplomatic missions. The Holy See maintains
relations with more than 120 nations.
In a separate accounting,
the report said the Vatican city-state was also in deficit, by some $18 million,
attributing it to falling revenues and the costs of running Vatican Radio.
Archbishop Renato Martino,
president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also spoke at the
July 7 Caritas event where I interviewed Rodriguez. He noted two areas of
special emphasis for his council.
First, he said, is the
ongoing struggle against poverty. “The last 50 years have seen tremendous
progress, but we are still a long way from defeating poverty,” he said.
Second, Martino pointed to
the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. “An entire generation stands to be
wiped out,” Martino warned. “We must do more in prevention and care.”
In that context, Martino
hinted at a new initiative.
“In the near future, the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace will be particularly engaged to promote
the right to development for the entire African continent,” he said. “You will
hear about that.”
I pulled Martino aside
afterwards to ask if there was anything he could add. He said no, other than
that an announcement would be made soon, and that the initiative comes
personally from John Paul II.
*** * *
Speaking of Africa, Sacred
Heart Sr. Teresa Okure, professor at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in
Nigeria, challenged Caritas to promote excluded groups.
God, Okure said, “started
in the margin of the margins,” seeking out a young peasant girl in Nazareth to
be his entry-point into human experience.
“Forget the image of Our
Lady we’ve built up,” Okure said. “She would be more like one of these girls we
meet in the streets. If we want to be like God, we need to look at the
Early Christians, Okure
said, “moved their bodies into taboo areas” in order to do this. She offered the
example of Lydia, a pagan convert in Philippi who according to Acts 9
“constrained” Paul to stay in her house. As a law-abiding Jew, Paul had to be
convinced to lodge with pagans. In the end, Lydia’s house became “the mother
church of Europe.”
Thus Okure challenged
Caritas: “Where will you want to move your bodies for solidarity to be real?”
Okure stressed the need to
include women in leadership roles, not just in Caritas but also in the broader
“We women have special
solidarity techniques, a special concern for the poor and for life,” Okure said.
She said that in an African village, a woman makes whatever food is available
stretch so all are fed. As in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, “resources
come from the poor,” Okure said.
* * *
While most Americans were
eating hot dogs and drinking beer on July 4, I was taking part in a roundtable
discussion in Rome on movements in the Catholic church. The occasion was a
presentation of the Italian edition of the March issue of Concilium, an
international theological review. The editor is an Italian scholar named Alberto
Melloni, who asked me to take part in the discussion.
A couple of days before, I
was in the office of Cardinal Francis Stafford to get some help on my new book,
trying to explain the psychology of the Vatican to the Anglo-Saxon mind. As it
happens, Stafford heads the Pontifical Council for Laity, which has
responsibility for the movements. I mentioned the roundtable, thinking he might
dispatch an aide to take notes.
Instead, Stafford himself
showed up, making me wish I had taken the time to either polish my Italian or at
least come up with something insightful to say in whatever language.
Alas, I had no revelation
to offer. I simply noted that as Catholic laity peel off into groups defined by
spiritual and ideological preferences, the sociological reality of the church’s
self-description as a communio becomes harder to find. Where are the
public spaces in which Catholics of different outlooks and experiences today
meet for dialogue? Parishes are “progressive,” “traditional,” “Neocathecumenate,”
etc., the Catholic press is ideologically stratified, and even Catholic colleges
often seem unable to foster conversation across our differences.
The movements are neither
the cause of this phenomenon nor a necessary contributor to it, yet they are
part of the picture. Hence my open question: How can the movements foster,
rather than diminish, communio?
Fr. James Puglisi, a noted
American ecumenist, spoke on the ecumenical impact of the movements. He noted
that many include people from other Christian churches among their members,
which can be very positive. At the same time, Puglisi warned that sometimes the
movements seem to pursue ecumenical activity not for its own sake, but as means
of glorifying themselves.
Fr. Dario Vitali, an
Italian ecclesiologist at the Gregorian University, argued that the movements
will be judged by how well they cohere with local parishes and dioceses.
“The test of a charism is
not just its fit with the universal church, but its insertion in the historic
local church,” Vitali said. He offered the example of St. Francis: “The
universality of Francis is unimaginable without Assisi,” he said.
* * * * *
An update on
implementation of the American norms on sex abuse.
As approved by Rome, those
norms envisioned canonical trials for accused priests. In fact, however, there
may be significantly fewer trials than once anticipated.
The New York Times
found in January that 432 accused priests had resigned, retired, or been removed
from ministry in the previous 12 months. Many of these men admitted guilt, or
are already out of ministry. Precise numbers are not available, but perhaps only
half or so of these cases have required notification to the Holy See.
Under the norms, bishops
are required to report all allegations found to be credible to the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, which authorizes one of three procedures:
An extra-juridical procedure envisioned under canon 1720. This
option allows the bishop, if he is morally certain the priest is guilty, to
remove him from ministry without the time and expense of a trial. (The canon
requires that the accused be notified of the charges and be given an opportunity
Dismissal from the clerical state ex officio et in
poenam, meaning an involuntary laicization approved personally by the pope.
This is a rare option because it short-circuits procedural guarantees. In most
cases, however, the accused priest has already had several opportunities to
mount a defense. Sometimes he may already have been convicted criminally.
The news that may surprise
Americans is that the inclination of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith is today in many cases to authorize option two, the extra-judicial route.
Last October, the Vatican rejected the norms approved by the U.S. bishops in
Dallas on the basis of the need to protect due process rights. This led to
concern about a proliferation of lengthy canonical trials that would delay
closure. Sources say, however, that as American case files arrive in Rome, in
many instances the accused priest’s guilt is clear, and hence the Vatican is
opting for the swifter solution.
Another reason for the
extra-judicial route can be prescription, the statute of limitations in
canon law (for the sexual abuse of a minor, the period is ten years from the
victim’s 18th birthday). When the American norms were debated, many
victims’ advocates worried that prescription would be used to shield accused
priests. In fact, however, Vatican sources say such an outcome is far more
likely in secular criminal law, where the statute of limitations is often an
absolute barrier to action against the accused. For example, the June 26
decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Stogner v. California, which
struck down a California law restricting the statute of limitations for some sex
crimes, resulted in the dismissal of charges against some priests. Canon law’s
bias, on the other hand, is that a rupture in the community has to be repaired
even if penal action is barred.
To date, few if any
canonical trials have actually been held in the United States, as dioceses await
authorizations from the congregation. In the meantime, bishops have removed
accused priests, placing them on administrative leave. Some priests have
appealed that action in a process called recourse. Once canonical trials
get underway, there will also be an automatic appeal to the Congregation of the
Doctrine of the Faith.
To handle these appeals,
the Vatican has considered creating a special tribunal of the Congregation of
the Doctrine of the Faith in Washington. Some lawyers and victims’ advocates,
however, have complained that such a tribunal might invoke Vatican sovereignty
as a means of shielding documents from civil discovery. On background, sources
tell me that if this becomes a concern, the congregation will likely scrap the
idea of an appellate tribunal in Washington.
Finally, there remains the
question of the “tough cases” — elderly priests with only one offense in the
distant past, who have been faithful ever since. While one can debate the point
theoretically, a canonist I spoke with in Rome said he wonders if this isn’t
more myth than reality. “I ask myself if there really are one offense cases,” he
said, “because in every instance I’ve dealt with, sooner or later other offenses
* * * * *
Two quick notes.
Lest readers be concerned
that I was denied an American 4th of July, let me note that my wife
and I, along with a local friend, attended the annual Independence Day bash at
the American embassy to the Holy See. It was, as always, a great time. The hot
dogs and hamburgers were terrific and the beer was ice cold.
At the event, Jesuit Fr.
Gerry O’Collins of the Gregorian University solidified his reputation as one of
the world’s true gentlemen. At one stage I found O’Collins at a small bar in
conversation with members of an Italian police band. He had noticed them being
ignored, and wanted them to know that somebody appreciated their presence.
O’Collins is an eminent theologian, perhaps the greatest living Christologist in
the Catholic church, and to watch him inquiring earnestly about these men’s
families and careers while remaining oblivious to the gaggle of VIPs swirling
around him confirmed the pastoral roots of his scholarship.
* * * * *
For the rest of July, I
will be on a busman’s holiday in the small Umbrian town of Gubbio, famous for
the story of St. Francis and the wolf, working on my next book. “The Word from
Rome” will be on hiatus with me, and will return on Friday, Aug. 8.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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