Should the Vatican have adopted US reforms on sex abuse?

Following revelations about sexual abuse, the Catholic Church in the United States adopted a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ and mandatory reporting. Could Pope Benedict XVI have avoided his current difficulties if the Vatican had taken the same path?

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Cardinals take turns approaching a crucifix during a service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on Good Friday.
Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Benedict XVI kneels during a service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Good Friday.

As Christians around the world celebrate the promise of Easter this weekend, the Roman Catholic Church faces increasing criticism for its handling of sex abuse cases involving priests in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Much of that criticism comes from American Catholics, who went through their own wrenching experience nearly a decade ago, when reforms were adopted to deal with child sex abuse by clergy.

"The tragedy is that the Europeans didn't get their house in order when they saw what was happening in the United States because they thought [abuse by priests] was an American problem," Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University, told CNN. "If they had adopted our reforms, they would be in a much better situation today."

Those reforms included zero tolerance toward priests who abused children, mandatory reporting of abuse allegations to legal authorities, and the creation of local boards of lay Catholics to respond to such allegations. Though the reforms were adopted as binding church law in the US, neither the Vatican nor the Catholic Church in Europe or other parts of the world followed suit, according to CNN.

Still, reports of new allegations in the United States continue.

Two abuse cases in Arizona “cast further doubt on the Catholic Church's insistence that Pope Benedict XVI played no role in shielding pedophiles before he became pope,” reports the Associated Press.

“Documents reviewed by The Associated Press show that as a Vatican cardinal, the future pope took over the abuse case of the Rev. Michael Teta of Tucson, Ariz., then let it languish at the Vatican for years despite repeated pleas from the bishop for the man to be removed from the priesthood,” AP reports. “In another Tucson case, that of Msgr. Robert Trupia, the bishop wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become pope in 2005. Bishop Manuel Moreno called Trupia ‘a major risk factor to the children, adolescents and adults that he many have contact with.’ There is no indication in the case files that Ratzinger responded.”

Pope unlikely to resign

There has been no indication that Pope Benedict XVI will resign. But some Catholic scholars believe that the Pope’s conservative moral agenda for the church may be undercut by the continuing scandal.

“The pope's moral authority is very much in doubt,” warns The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

“Especially if additional cases surface, his teaching on moral matters will hold much less sway among ordinary Catholics,” The Rev. McBrien writes on Newsweek’s web site. “The indifference to his agenda would probably expand into outright rejection. And Benedict would likely be less able to draft undecided Catholics to his side, except perhaps the most conservative.”

“Damage to Pope Benedict XVI's moral authority would also probably affect his capacity to impose his conservative liturgical initiatives on the worldwide Church,” McBrien adds.

For the most part, Latin America has not been in the news about abuse within the Catholic Church. But that may be changing.

“Some experts on the Vatican are predicting that the sex abuse scandal will spread through Latin America,” writes Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times from Mexico City, noting recent cases in Brazil and Chile.

Meanwhile, reports of abusive priests in Europe are growing.

Abuse hotline overwhelmed

A hotline set up by the Catholic Church in Germany was overwhelmed by more than 4,000 alleged victims calling for counseling and advice.

“In the end only 162 out of 4,459 callers were given advice before the system was shut down,” the Daily Mail reports. “Andreas Zimmer, head of the project in the Bishopric of Trier, admitted that he wasn't prepared for ‘that kind of an onslaught’.”

The Vatican and other church supporters of the Pope – mainly in Europe – continue to maintain a vigorous defense against critics, especially the media.

In a Friday sermon in St Peter's Basilica, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, described as “the Pope’s personal preacher,” likened attacks on the church and the Pope to anti-Semitism comparable to "collective violence" against Jews during the Holocaust.

While Vatican officials later said that was not the official position, Jews around the world were aghast.

"How can you compare the collective guilt assigned to the Jews which caused the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people to perpetrators who abuse their faith and their calling by sexually abusing children?" asked Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the international Jewish rights group.

'What did he know, when did he know it?'

At this point, the Pope’s situation reminds some observers (like Tom McNichol, writing on the Atlantic web site) of disgraced former president Richard Nixon.

That may seem harsh. But it is a point with which The Rev. McBrien at Notre Dame agrees.

“This controversy will not be put to rest until the Pope himself gives the answer to the question, the famous question that Senator Howard Baker asked in the Watergate hearings many years ago,” he said on ABC’s Good Morning America. “What did he know and when did he know it, and a third question, And what did he do about it?”

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