Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Forewarned is only Forearmed if You Listen

Today's New York Times article on the Catholic sex abuse crisis sheds new light on just how willfully blind the Vatican and the American Church were to the problem:
The founder of a Roman Catholic religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests warned American bishops in forceful letters dating back to 1952 that pedophiles should be removed from the priesthood because they could not be cured. The Rev. Gerald M. C. Fitzgerald, founder of the order, Servants of the Paraclete, delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later, according to the letters, which were unsealed by a judge in the course of litigation against the church.

The documents contradict the most consistent defense given by bishops about the sexual abuse scandal: that they were unaware until recently that offenders could not be rehabilitated and returned to the ministry.
This capsule summary of the article does not do justice to the insistence of Father Fitzgerald that radical steps were needed to protect children from sexual exploitation by their pastors, an insistence which was coupled with a keen awareness of the privileged position of clergy in American society; according to letters published both in the Times and in the National Catholic Reporter, Father Fitzgerald "acknowledged the degree of deference with which Catholic clergy were treated even by civil authorities. 'We are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum [the care of souls],' he wrote." (The NCR has made many of the letters available here.

The Fitzgerald letters, I am sorry to say, establish a closer link between the Vatican and the sex abuse crisis than I was previously aware of. The Times provides the As I have text of a August 27, 1963 letter to Pope Paul VI in which he urges the Pope to defrock priests who prey on youth, and to offer priests who have had consensual affairs with women (the other issue addressed at length in his letter) the option of marriage, but at the loss of priestly status.

A note on dates. In 1962--only a year before this exchange of letters,which is clearly a continuation of a dialogue,the Vatican issued Criminales Solicitaciones, which threatens victims and witnesses to such abuse with excommunication if they report the matter to the secular authorities. As I have previously noted, this edict was still in force as of 2001, according to a letter by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II issued a letter to the American bishops in which he stated that
[t]he vast majority of Bishops and priests are devoted followers of Christ, ardent workers in his vineyard, and men who are deeply sensitive to the needs of their brothers and sisters. That is why I am deeply pained, like you, when it seems that the words of Christ can be applied to some ministers of the altar. Since Christ calls them his "friends" (Jn. 15:15), their sin – the sin of giving scandal to the innocent – must pain his heart indeed. Therefore, I fully share your sorrow and your concern, especially your concern for the victims so seriously hurt by these misdeeds.
The rest of the letter--after a paragraph about the hope of reconciliation with the perpetrators--consists of a tactful urging to damp down publicity as much as possible, running five paragraphs out of the letter's eight paragraph length. (To re-cap: an epigraph regarding the harm of scandal; two paragraphs on the wrongfulness of sexually molestation of children by priests; a paragraph regarding forgiveness of such predators; and the bulk of the letter addresses the need to not let the whole business become too widely publicized).

At no point does the late Pope recognize or address the systemic failure of the bishops or of the Vatican to address the crisis, let alone its complicity in routine transfers of predators from diocese to diocese, and in silencing the victims.

Pope Benedict XVI did rather better, acknowledging "shame", and staing that he was deeply sorry last year. But he also did not address the systemic response, other than to state that the American bishops handled the matter "sometimes very badly".

As Father Fitzgerald's letter raises the number of Popes directly involved to four--John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, the reasons for the persistent reluctance of the hierachy to address the systemic nature of the problem becomes more clear.

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