National Catholic Reporter ®

July 19, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 47

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A whiff of anti-Semitism in Rome’s assessment of sex abuse crisis; a boost for Tettamanzi; lawyers target Holy See

To put the point more bluntly than these men ever would, in part they blame the Jews.

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 held. 

     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 30 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 and Stalin. 

     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 said. 

     “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 theological debate.

     “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, Los 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 after 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 ahead.

     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 action;

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 Alperin 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 rule.

     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

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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