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 The Word From Rome

July 11, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 46

John L. Allen Jr.


“Bishops of the First World sometimes saw themselves as related to wealth, power and privilege. … Perhaps [the sex abuse crisis] is calling the bishops to become servants, closer to the people.”

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga
of Honduras

Cardinal Rodriguez on ‘shaking things up’ and lessons learned; Vatican finances; Pope promises Africa initiative; Vatican procedures for priests accused of sex abuse


For 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?

“I 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?

In 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.

This 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.

“I am not afraid,” he said. “I am at peace with whatever might come.”

On 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.

“We have been forgotten,” Rodriguez said. “We were noticed for a few minutes after Hurricane Mitch [in November 1998], and then we disappeared.”

In 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.

Thus Rodriguez’s remarks last June are best understood not as a sober content analysis of the American press, but a cri de coeur.

“Many 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.”

His 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 everywhere.

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 of leadership.

“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,” he said.

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.

“God 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 surprises.

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 increase.

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 excluded.”

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 culture.

 “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:

·        Canonical trial.

·        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 for defense).

·        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 surface.”

* * * * *

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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