Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What explains the frequent tone deaf comments by Church leaders?

The media coverage of the Church's response to sexual abuse by priests has not always been fair, but Church leaders sure aren't helping matters.  Blaming pedophilia on homosexuality seems irresponsible, at best.  This is an area that is so inflammatory, so prone to bigotry and perceptions of scapegoating, that if the Church is going to make causal pronouncements about the underlying incidents of abuse, those statements need to be careful, restrained, and backed up by evidence.  A coordinated Vatican response would be helpful (and would have been more helpful a few weeks ago).  If this is the coordinated response, then there is even more cause for concern.

Why has it been so difficult for Church leaders to respond to the sexual abuse media coverage in a way that does not come off as self-pitying, overly defensive, or shifting the blame?  Is this a consequence of Church leaders operating largely beyond the reach of public criticism for so many years?  Have the anti-Christian strains in today's culture created an unhealthy "circle the wagons" mentality among Church leaders that is difficult to escape?  Is there a perception that admitting mistakes by Church leadership -- including the pope -- will cause believers to stumble in the faith, and thus such admissions should be avoided at all costs?  Is it the media's failure to report the responses that are actually and appropriately humble and remorseful?  Something else?


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The Chruch has appeared to respond and clarified its stance as to Bertone's remarks. I suspect Bertone is talking about the problem with sexs with Teenagers that gets lumped into all this as Pedolphilla.

That being said I think a little Vatican 101 is needed. There are official statements (the Holy See Press Offcie and formal statements of the Congregations).

The Vatican is a big place and has a plurality of voices which I know is not helping right now because everything comes off as the VATICAN SAYS.

Part of the problem is the Vatican does does have anything akin to the White House Press Office. In the above case we had different time zones at work and thus caused a delay in the reponse no doubt.

I am pretty sure the Pope will make a statement (he sort of did it as to the Irish situation) However I think it will be of a time and venue the Vatican chooses so it can get its message across clear.

I suspect the Vatican is waiting for the 5th anniversary of Benedict's Pontificate to come. I think it is fairly likely that they know the Press might have another of one of their "scoops" so to make a statement now without seeing what is to come in the next few days might not be wise.

I have acutally been impressed with some of the Vatican responses because at least in reaction time it is a improvement

I have actually seen good statements coming from the vatican on this that are not "defensive" however they don't get picked up. People are more concerned what some retired Bishop says about Jews and Masons.

Posted by: jh | Apr 14, 2010 12:29:04 PM

There actually is a connection. It appears that anti-Catholic bigotry is acceptable. Blaming celibacy or male only priesthood as casual factors is common. But the pink elephant in the room is the connection between homosexuality and the abuse of males by other males. As a canonist I can tell you that the media coverage is biased, uninformed, inaccurate, and has nothing to do with the issue of child abuse. They didn't bother to consult any canon lawyers on whether their conclusions were correct. The Vatican is correct in understanding that the critics are not interested in reforming the Church. If we care about the children then even the link with homosexuality must be acknowledged and explored. Doesn't the truth matter? Do we accept that they are a protected class, but that the Catholic Church is fair game? In 2008 62,000 people were accused of abuse in the USA and about 10 were priests. That is statistically insignificant. So why are we not looking at other factors? When will the valiant media take on some of their own sacred cows?

Posted by: JS | Apr 14, 2010 1:07:16 PM

Perhaps the Church is so defensive because no one else is speaking for her enough. The response has been ham-handed, for sure. But I am torn on the role for regular pew-sitters. Should all members of the Church, from Vatican to parish priests to laity, stand silent when unfairly charged, because (1) other charges are fair ones and (2) that is Christ's model before Pilate?

Or should we speak truth to the New York Times, and acknowledge faults while fighting back against the calumny? Should we not defend our Mother Church?

Christ, as another post noted, was quite stern about those who harm children. What would he have done if Pilate accused His Mother?

We are to turn the other cheek for ourselves, but we are to defend others. Is our Church "others" or is it "ourselves"?

When my non-Catholic friends ask me, "so, what do you think about all this?," I send them links to Peggy Noonan, John Allen, and Fr. Brundage. I try to acknowledge the harm and also explain the NYT's errors. But I have little confidence in my approach.

Posted by: unsure | Apr 14, 2010 1:39:53 PM

JS writes: "But the pink elephant in the room is the connection between homosexuality and the abuse of males by other males."

But this is just it, isn't it: there *is* no connection between homosexuality per se and pedo/ephebo-philia. Nor is this lack of connection a "liberal" or "secularist" talking point, as Bertone wrongly suggests.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago's training program for spotting and handling pedophilia, called Virtus, the connection between homosexuality and pedophilia is expressly denied. It is indeed introduced as a "myth" in need of correction.

Posted by: WJ | Apr 14, 2010 2:11:11 PM

How is "pedophilia" defined? If it includes sexual abuse of anyone under the age of consent, then there certainly seems to be a facial connection between homosexuality and pedophilia in the instance of, say, the abuse of a boy who's 14 or older.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 14, 2010 3:08:31 PM


Some *limit* cases of ephebeophilia, when the victim is around seventeen and the perpetrator less than five years his senior, *may* or *may not* have a linkage to the primary orientation of the perpetrator. In the majority of instances, however, there has been no such documented connection. I refer to to a USCCB write up on the issue that is pretty helpful: http://www.usccb.org/comm/blanchette.shtml

Posted by: WJ | Apr 14, 2010 4:48:15 PM

unsure, gay literature and art has a long history of pedophiliac references. It is one of those things that no one talks about. I find it interesting that people blame celibacy which absolutely has no causal link, but immediately dismiss any connection to homosexuality. Males being attracted to other males is homosexuality. We can parse it all we like, but that remains true. Part of the problem is that no one dares to say that your do research. It would mean the loss of career. If there is no link why would anyone be afraid to explore it? Because it is a dirty little secret that the connection does exist.

I remember reading an article where a 14 year old boy went walking on a gay beach in California. He was immediately surrounded and various proposals were made inviting him to parties etc. I expect everyone of those homosexuals would deny being a pedophile.

Posted by: JS | Apr 14, 2010 5:35:00 PM


One comment I'll make on this is the "happy talk" I hear from some Catholics in the following phrase: The church is not a business or bishops are being expected to act as CEOs (oh, boo-hoo).

It may be the case that the Church is not a business, but they could borrow from some of its models. Such as--when a bishop is grossly negligent or worse in handling sexually abusive priests, they ought to resign or be forced out. In light of the money that Maciel was funneling to high-ranking cardinals, there also ought to be periodic financial audits of individuals in important leadership positions (heck, the IRS requires this of people who review changes in accounting method requests!!). I don't mean to reduce all of this to a communications strategy or crisis management, but formalistic standards such as resignations, transparency, and effective communications allow folks to know what is on your mind. It gives them the opportunity to not get the wrong impression...and that too touches and concerns the salvation of souls.

Posted by: Don Altobello | Apr 14, 2010 7:55:48 PM

I thought for years that the Vatican should have removed the bad bishops. I was (and still am), like many, more outraged by the bishops' behavior than the underlying priest abuse. (Not that the abuse isn't also awful, but the extent of it would not have been possible without the enabling, and I also expect more of higher leaders.)

However, I recently read something that reminded me that, for all the Vatican's centralized power over naming bishops, it has also tried (not enough) to stay aware of concerns that it has been too monarchical or ultramontane. Those concerns come from within the Western Church, from the Eastern Catholic Churches, and from ecumenical discussions with the Orthodox and others. So in trying to keep the Pope as first AMONG bishops, the weight against removing bishops is strong.

For example, had the Vatican removed Weakland or any liberal bishop in the 90s, as opposed to Law or any conservative one, the charge would have been that it was an ideological purge -- even if the evidence showed that the issue was the bishop's own personal issues or his failure to police the abusers.

So the hindsight is 20/20, as always, but I can equally see what the alternative problems would have looked like.

Posted by: unsure | Apr 15, 2010 9:57:22 AM

I also think that part of the tone-deafness is a frustration (perhaps misplaced) that we are "doing this all over again." I know I've had a strong sense of "2002 all over again," and I'm not a Church leader or diocesan spokesperson. Imaginary thought bubble: "Words and actions of remorse and ammends? Changes, laying of guilt, examination of conscience? Didn't we already say and do all those things just five years ago? Do we really have to say it all again?"

I don't say that to excuse, mind you. With a two-edged scandal as ugly as this one, you're going to have to patiently explain and ask forgiveness multiple times. But I think some leaders are getting impatient because the actions they did take are already out of the media's short-term memory.

I hasten to add that the actions they took are quite open to the criticism of being insufficient--I know I'd like to see lots of bishops get rolled, as unsure says above (frankly, that's what bugs me about the anti-Benedict stories--go after the real criminals, for crying out loud). But on the other hand, things were done, confessions were made, and the current media criticism does fail to portray that. I can understand a certain waspishness.

But as Pope Benedict's recent homily says, the Church just HAS to embrace it as more penance. Do we have to do this all over again? Well...yeah.

Posted by: A Catholic School Teacher | Apr 15, 2010 11:25:49 AM

One of the issues is that many bishops, like Weakland, were crying "subsidiarity" and asking the Vatican to not micro-manage them. Canonists informed the bishops repeatedly of the problems. The bishops assured Pope John Paul that they had everything under control. My sources say that he pounded the table and shouted when he was told that they had not done the necessary reforms. Keep in mind that when Rome undertakes reform it tends to look like Trent. If people think that the ongoing reforms will be more "liberal" then they are delusional. Just the other day I received a new document which makes it easier to laicize priests. The Church will become more "conservative" not less.

Posted by: JS | Apr 15, 2010 11:47:32 AM