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ABUSE-VATICAN Mar-22-2002 (920 words) Analysis. xxxi

Vatican is defensive on sex abuse but understands its seriousness

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After months of reticence, the Vatican confronted the painful issue of clerical sex abuse in a twin initiative -- a papal letter and a press conference.

The March 21 statements illustrated how well church leaders understand the gravity of this particular sin and the serious damage it has done to good Catholics and good priests.

But they also revealed the Vatican's defensiveness over public disclosure of such failings and its determination to work out short-range and long-range solutions behind closed doors.

In his annual letter to priests, Pope John Paul II called sex abuse by clergy a betrayal of priestly ordination. Echoing a letter of St. Paul, he said these sins represented "the most grievous forms of the 'mysterium iniquitatis' at work in the world."

But while the Latin phrase -- it means "the mystery of evil" -- held dramatic significance for the pope, it may not have made such a huge impact on the public at large, especially since the pope did not mention "sex abuse" by name.

Moreover, his two pronouncements on the problem in recent months have come at the end of lengthy written documents that few Catholics will ever read.

At the press conference, when one journalist asked whether the Vatican was aware that many U.S. Catholics want to hear something directly from their pope about these painful episodes, his question went unanswered.

Indeed, the opinion voiced privately by many Vatican officials is that the current media storm over sex abuse cases will blow over, and that the pope need not publicly discuss such unseemly incidents.

The idea that the pope needed to "break his silence" on sex abuse has driven Vatican officials up the wall. They noted that the pope has spoken out explicitly about the problem in the past, particularly in talks to U.S. bishops in 1993.

But that only underlined the communications gap that exists between the United States, where information lives and dies in daily headlines, and the Vatican, where church positions build by accretion over decades or centuries.

To show that it is responding to the problem, the Vatican repeatedly has pointed to the new set of papal norms that centralized such cases and placed them under Vatican oversight. Yet the norms, issued last year, still have not been published and are being sent to bishops only on a need-to-know basis.

In the United States, some would call that "lack of openness." At the Vatican, it's seen as necessary confidentiality on a highly sensitive issue.

At the Vatican press conference, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos personified the Vatican approach. He took reporters' questions, then read a prepared statement in response -- a tactic that seemed to outsiders more theater than candor, but which was viewed as a major act of frankness at the Vatican.

Cardinal Castrillon defended the church's historic severity with pedophile priests, cited papal statements on the issue and noted recent Vatican steps to deal with offenders. This information is often ignored in reporting on clerical sex abuse.

But the cardinal, who heads the Congregation for Clergy, avoided all questions about how the Vatican plans to respond to some of the larger issues raised by the recent cases, such as screening of seminary candidates, homosexuality in the priesthood and priestly celibacy.

No Vatican official, in fact, has spoken in depth about the pastoral management issues raised by the handling of these cases.

Cardinal Castrillon also implied that the problem was confined largely to English-speaking countries, that money was a factor in the cases coming to light, and that priests were being unfairly singled out as a category of professionals when it comes to sex abuse.

To many of his listeners, those comments struck an odd tone that contrasted with the expressions of deep regret and admissions of mistakes coming out of some U.S. dioceses.

The appearance before journalists was clearly a painful assignment for the Colombian cardinal, who made the sign of the cross as he sat down to meet the press. His statement had been days in preparation, as Vatican officials discussed how -- or whether -- to respond to the growing sex abuse scandal.

He read the statement slowly and his anguish seemed palpable at times, as if by speaking about the problem he risked raising its profile.

That's been the prevailing attitude at the Vatican, where officials have refused requests for interviews and stayed silent on the topic. One exception to the rule was U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, the Vatican's top communications official. He called clerical sex abuse a grave offense against God and children and suggested that the pope call a period of church-wide prayer in reparation.

The Vatican's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, ran the pope's Holy Thursday letter without comment and made no mention of Cardinal Castrillon's lengthy statement on clerical sex abuse. It has not reported a single word on the recent cases that have come to light in the United States and elsewhere.

That doesn't mean sex abuse or pedophilia are taboo at the Vatican. During a 10-day period in March, a Vatican official published a major book on sexual abuse of children; the Vatican newspaper condemned perpetrators of such abuse and recommended no leniency by judges who sentence them; and the Vatican denounced sexual exploitation of children by pedophiles, telling a U.N.-sponsored conference that "the veil of silence ... has finally been ripped open."

None of these Vatican initiatives mentioned priests.


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