|Since the beginning of the
sex abuse crisis in the United States, I have often been asked how Rome
sees the situation. My shorthand answer has been that while Vatican officials
are certainly horrified by the abuse of children, as well as by the failure
of some bishops to prevent that abuse, most also regard the avalanche of
public criticism of the Church as exaggerated.
Fueling the attacks,
they believe, is an anti-Catholic American press, a legal industry hungry
to tap the deep pockets of the Catholic Church, and dissidents within the
Church of both left and right grinding their axes.
This is still a good
summary of conventional wisdom. But there is also a darker theory about
the origins of the anti-Church temper in the American press currently making
the rounds. It’s something that so far only one prelate has dared to say
out loud, and even then obliquely. Yet I have heard it come up repeatedly
in private conversation, enough to convince me that it is fairly widely
I should add that I am
not talking about reactionaries who see a plot behind any criticism of
the church, but about views expressed by several intelligent, cultured
Catholic leaders of both left and right.
To put the point more
bluntly than these men ever would, in part they blame the Jews.
The point was hinted
at in the now-infamous May 2002 interview in the Italian Catholic publication
Giorni, where Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga compared
media “persecution” of Cardinal Bernard Law and the U.S. Church with the
ancient Roman emperors and 20th century dictators such as Hitler
Rodriguez argued that
it’s no coincidence the sex abuse scandal broke just as the world seemed
to be focusing on Palestinian suffering.
“It certainly makes me
think that in a moment in which all the attention of the mass media was
focused on the Middle East, all the many injustices done against the Palestinian
people, the print media and the TV in the United States became obsessed
with sexual scandals that happened 40 years ago, 30 years ago,” Rodriguez
“Why? I think it’s also
for these motives: What is the church that has received Arafat the most
times, and has most often confirmed the necessity of the creation of a
Palestinian state? What is the church that does not accept that Jerusalem
should be the indivisible capital of the State of Israel, but that it should
be the capital of the three great monotheistic religions?”
To be sure, Rodriguez
– whom I know personally as an intelligent, pastoral man deeply concerned
with social justice – went on to add that the Catholic Church also has
strong stands against abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and birth
control, all of which can be equally unpopular. But the logic of his comments
seems clear: Someone in America doesn’t like the pro-Palestinian tilt of
the Catholic Church, and used their media clout to deliver payback.
It’s not much of a reach
to imagine who Rodriguez might suspect that “someone” to be.
In recent weeks I’ve
had similar conversations with church officials in and around Rome, including
Europeans, Latin Americans, and Africans, and I have been struck by how
often this theme comes up once tape recorders are turned off. Just last
week I was sitting in the Rome office of a leading Catholic educator and
intellectual, an Italian who is widely respected as a moderate voice in
“Don’t you think,” he
asked me, “that the disproportionate Jewish influence in the American media
is part of the story?”
In part, the hypothesis
reflects the pro-Palestinian slant of much European public opinion, which
has long vilified America’s “Jewish lobby.” In part, it reflects the strained
Catholic/Jewish relationship in the wake of the beatification of Pius IX,
the acrimonious debate over Pius XII and his alleged “silence” during the
Holocaust, and the collapse of a Jewish-Catholic scholarly commission empanelled
by the Vatican to investigate its World War II archives. In such an atmosphere,
it’s easy for some around the Vatican to imagine that influential Jews
in the American press might want to wound the church.
Yet one cannot avoid
the impression that at a deep, pre-conscious level, some degree of anti-Semitism
is also at work. It’s the antique suspicion that whenever a Christian is
dealt a low blow, in the background must lurk a Jew.
That such notions still
swim in our ecclesiastical bloodstream should give us pause.
Is it true that in the
United States, Jews are over-represented in the media? To some extent,
yes. In his book Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment,
J.J. Goldberg found that while Jews are five percent of the working press
nationwide, they represent one fourth or more of the writers, editors,
and producers in America’s ‘elite media. ’ This includes network news divisions,
the top newsweeklies and the four leading daily papers (New York Times,
Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal).
Yet even if this over-representation
biases the American media in favor of Israel — a debatable proposition
in itself — it is a serious stretch to imagine that American Jewish reporters
went after the sexual scandals in order to neutralize Vatican policies
on the Middle East that, frankly, most of them don’t even realize exist.
Having been interviewed by a fair cross-section of reporters from major
American outlets, I can say with some confidence that it simply hasn’t
worked this way.
I believe the focus on
the story has more to do with the American media’s Watergate complex, which
sees exposing institutional corruption as the highest form of public service,
combined with the herd instinct that if one press outlet has a story then
all must cover it. Moreover, the American bishops had an opportunity to
minimize the dimensions of the story through forceful, convincing public
action, and did not succeed.
Even if the Jewish hypothesis
is a red herring, however, it still has something to teach us.
Many American Catholics,
hearing that church officials are quietly blaming Jews in the media for
their current troubles, may well be outraged. It could seem like more denial,
more passing the buck, more evasion of responsibility. There may be some
truth in the reaction.
But Americans, and perhaps
especially those of us in the press, should also ponder how it is that
intelligent, balanced observers might be induced to entertain such ideas
in the first place. The truth is that to these observers, attention given
to the sex abuse story in the United States has been exaggerated,
a point that can appear in clear relief once you step outside of American
airspace. It is inexplicable to most external observers how in the entire
galaxy of potential news stories, this one — involving a relatively small
number of priests, with most accusations decades old — finished on the
front page of newspapers and as the lead item on the evening news, night
That’s not to say the
story isn’t important. But in a world in which 24,000 people die each day
from hunger, in which one-third of the 15-year-olds in the most affected
African nations will eventually die of AIDS, in which reaction to the war
on terror is ever more polarized, it’s a question of perspective.
The Catholic Church is
hardly a perfect institution. But it has much to offer in addressing these
global problems, and an unbalanced focus on its failures is counter-productive.
That’s what observers from the rest of the world are responding to, even
when it takes the unfortunate form of an old anti-Semitic canard.
* * *
Readers of this column
will already have noted the appointment of Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi,
68, as the successor of legendary Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in Milan.
The nomination puts Tettamanzi, already a strong contender to be the next
pope, in an even better position.
If labels must be assigned,
I suppose one would call Tettamanzi a theological “conservative.” He moves
intellectually within the traditionalist wing of moral theology in Italy
that has long been disenchanted with the post-Vatican II softening of moral
absolutes. This puts him in company with figures such as Angelo Scola,
the new archbishop of Venice, and Carlo Caffarra, who some believe may
replace Tettamanzi in Genoa and thus join him and Scola in the College
of Cardinals when John Paul II next holds a consistory.
Yet the curious thing
about Tettamanzi is that as soon as you have him fixed in a category, a
counter-example comes along that changes the picture.
For example, some note
(as I did in my new book, Conclave) that Tettamanzi is friendly
to the lay movement Opus Dei, which many regard as conservative. Yet he
is also on good terms with the Sant’Egidio Community, seen as left-leaning
in both Church and Italian political circles. Moreover, after his strong
positions in favor of the anti-globalization protests during the G-8 summit
in Genoa last year, he is said to have lost some points within certain
sectors of the more right-wing Communion and Liberation movement.
A further footnote, brought
to my attention by an Italian colleague. In 1994, the newspaper l’Unità,
the official publication of the ex-Communist Italian leftists, published
the entire New Testament in six small volumes. In traditional Catholic
circles, it was considered something of a scandal that the leftists, for
so long seen as “enemies of the church,” should appropriate the scriptures.
Hence in the preface, the man who was then the director of the paper, Walter
Veltroni, now the mayor of Rome, expressly thanked the secretary general
of the Italian bishops’ conference for having given him permission to go
That secretary was Tettamanzi.
Anybody this hard to pin down could have a very interesting political future.
* * *
Despite the fact that
the Holy See is a sovereign state and hence theoretically immune from being
sued in the courts of other nations, that of course doesn’t stop enterprising
lawyers from trying. At the moment, I’m aware of several lawsuits moving
through American courts in which the Vatican is among the named defendants.
(For purposes of this
report, I’m glossing over the distinction between the “Vatican,” the 109-acre
physical headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, and the “Holy See,”
the non-spatial sovereign entity headed by the pope that enjoys diplomatic
relations with 172 states).
The suits include:
• Alperin v. Vatican Bank, which deals
with the Vatican’s alleged role in recycling loot stolen by pro-Nazi Ustasha
regime in Croatia during World War II (the Franciscan Order is also named
as a defendant);
• Zivkovich v. Vatican Bank, a similar
• Dale v. Holy See, a Racketeer Influenced
and Corrupt Organization (RICO) suit filed by the Insurance Commissioners
of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, seeking $600
million in damages related to an insurance scam pulled by Martin Frankel,
allegedly using Vatican cover through an Italian monsignore named
Emilio Colagiovanni, now under house arrest in the United States;
• A number of cases related to sexual abuse by
priests, including Doe v. Holy See in Oregon; Gomez v. Holy See
in Florida; and Doe v. Holy See in Missouri.
On June 28, in a U.S.
district court in Northern California, attorneys Thomas Dewey Easton and
Jonathan Levy, representing the plaintiffs in the Alperin case,
filed a motion to have all these cases coordinated, at least as regards
the question of the Vatican’s sovereign immunity. Their argument is that
the Vatican should not be found liable for certain kinds of action in one
U.S. jurisdiction but not another.
The Holy See has invoked
its sovereignty as a core element of its response in these cases. In the
case, for example, Levy told me that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s
secretary of state, had asked the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See to intervene,
through the State Department, in order to have the suit dismissed. To date
that has not happened.
On July 1, attorney Jeffrey
S. Lena of Berkeley, California, acting on behalf of the Vatican bank in
the Alperin suit, opposed the request to consolidate the cases,
as did lawyers Ronald Mallen and Joanna D. Opperman for the Franciscans
on July 2.
“This argument is akin
to requiring all cases against Ford Motor Company, regardless of subject
matter, to be combined in one court merely because Ford may assert a common
defense in each lawsuit,” Mallen and Opperman wrote.
Lena argued that a request
to consolidate the cases should go to a multi-district judicial panel,
not to a particular circuit court, and Levy said the plaintiffs may exercise
that option, but will wait a bit longer for the district court judge to
Given the amount of litigation
piling up in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, it’s inevitable that the
issue of the Vatican’s immunity from liability is going to become more
and more a focus in American courts. Hence the fate of Easton and Levy’s
motion bears close watching.
* * *
My new book Conclave: The
Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday)
is available at http://www.amazon.com/
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111