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Catholic sex abuse crisis

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Victims of priest abuse at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee are pointing the finger at Pope Benedict for doing nothing at the time. Allen Pizzey reports from Vatican City.

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John L. Allen, Jr.
Senior Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter and Author
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; 11:00 AM

John L. Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI," was online Tuesday, March 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the pope and the Catholic sex abuse crisis.

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Forum: On Leadership panelists and readers discuss whether the Pope can hold other church leaders to account when his own past performance is in question.

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John L. Allen, Jr.: Hi there ... John Allen here, senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, senior Vatican analyst with CNN, and author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI" (Doubleday, 2005). I look forward to taking your questions and spending this hour with you!

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Washington, D.C.: Is there a reason that I've never read anything that the Catholic church does good in newspapers? Only seems like the press pays it any attention when it's time to bash it.

John L. Allen, Jr.: It depends on who you read and what you watch, of course, but in general it's true that media coverage of religion tends to concentrate on crisis and scandal. That's been especially true lately, of course, with regard to the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict. My own sense is that's one part lack of imagination in the media about what else to cover, and one part lack of aptitude among Church spokespersons and leaders about how to offer a rival narrative. However you explain it, it's too bad, because there are plenty of compelling and positive stories to tell.

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Washington, D.C.: The last time that the public experienced outrage over a pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was when America invaded Iraq, a country that had not attacked us. It was during that time that the most significant rift between the leadership and the laity occurred and it left the entire institution unable to effectively participate in the war debate. This is significant. We all know from the Solidarity movement in Poland that the church is really the only institution in the lives of regular people that can oppose wrongful actions by government. This is especially true when political parties cannot lead. Like many of the abuse cases from the 2002-3 scandal, today's victims were abused decades ago. Why didn't we hear from them then? Is America now planning another pre-emptive invasion which requires further hobbling of a pro-peace institution?

John L. Allen, Jr.: I'm sort of allergic to conspiracy theories as to why the media, or certain interest groups, might be going after the Church. If the question is, do some parties out there have reasons not to like the Church, and has the sex abuse crisis given them a chance to grind their axes, I suppose that's probably true. But on the other hand, this is a real crisis, not a manufactured one, and in any event, crisis management 101 tells us that blaming the media rarely works. Far better, I think, to try to wrestle with the substantive issues than to focus on alleged obscure forces orchestrating things behind the scenes.

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Woodbridge, Va.: AGAIN? How does the Church intend to spin this one? I couldn't believe my ears when these newest allegations in Milwaukee came out. All the good works the Church does is overshadowed by this sort of stupidity. Why does the Church think that sweeping child abuse under the rug is the solution?

John L. Allen, Jr.: In a sense, this is one of those cases where the Catholic Church is paying a steep price today for failures in the past, because obviously allegations such as those that arose in Milwaukee would be handled very differently today. By the way, the judge in the canonical trial in the Murphy case from Milwaukee published an essay today making the point that the Vatican never "stopped" the case against Fr. Murphy, and that he was a defendant in a church trial until the day he died. That wrinkle hasn't always been made in some of the reporting.

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Albany, N.Y.: First, I'm a great admirer of your work and have recommended it to several colleagues. Second, I wonder if the Church has learned anything about responding to abuse issues from the American case which you've written about. From the rhetoric I've seen, it hasn't and is making the same mistakes in Ireland and Europe that it did in America. What's your take?

John L. Allen, Jr.: At one level, the Church has learned a great deal from the experience in the States almost a decade ago ... certainly the response this time around is far less defensive, and more rapid, than before. But two things: First, the unfinished business of the crisis still seems to be, in the eyes of many people, accountability for bishops, and as long as that's left hanging, many will still find whatever the Church or its officials say unsatisfying. Second, the new element this time around obviously is the way the Pope himself has been personally linked to the crisis. In a sense, a decade ago Catholics had to learn a new vocabulary to talk about the failures of the Church -- this time they may have to learn a vocabulary to talk about the failures of the Pope, or at least areas where his record is open to debate.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dear John,

There are so many conflicting commentaries and reports on this issue--I've even read your column trying to distill the facts. What's your general sense of how those in the Vatican are really seeing this situation -- not how they are posturing regarding it, but how they view the reality of it?

John L. Allen, Jr.: My sense is that they "get" this is a terribly serious crisis, but don't quite know how to manage it. Their frustration, of course, is that a Pope they've long regarded as a reformer on the sex abuse issue is now being criticized as part of the problem. While they certainly have a point, I don't think that defensiveness and blaming the media is their best exit strategy ... it's probably going to take some time for them to be able to say, 'This is a pope who's done a lot, but we also have to come to terms with a handful of episodes where he perhaps didn't handle this as well as he should have.'

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Arlington, Va.: Christopher Hitches asked on Bill Maher this weekend "Is the Vatican going to be a pirate state that gives refuge to pederasts?" Given the widespread and global nature of this epidemic of child rape within the Church, and it's steadfast refusal to make significant reforms, it seems a reasonable question to ask.

Why do you think non-Catholics are so willing to tolerate the Church's institutional support of child abuse? How many more scandals do you think will be necessary before public opinion shifts significantly against the Church?

John L. Allen, Jr.: I think most Church officials probably feel that public opinion shifted against them long ago, and that Chris Matthews' questioning is a great example. Anyway, if the question is, does the Catholic Church today tolerate the sexual abuse of children, the answer is clearly "no." Zero tolerance is now the official policy of the church, and it's abundantly clear that if a priest commits an act of abuse, he will be both yanked out of ministry and reported to the cops. What's happening now is that the Church is paying a steep price for not having been committed to that policy in the past.

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Tacoma Park, Md.: It seems to me that the only motivation for the church hierarchy to really change their methods has been due to substantial financial setbacks, particularly from legal settlements. How much impact have these revelations over the past decade or so had on activity in the U.S. Catholic church, particularly with regard to donations?

John L. Allen, Jr.: The sex abuse crisis has taken an enormous financial toll, in that the present estimate is that dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic institutions in America have paid $2.5 billion in settlements, with perhaps another $1 billion on the table in lawsuits right now. Seven dioceses and a religious order have declared bankruptcy. On the other hand, most studies show that projections of a severe drop in financial contributions to the Church, either in the Sunday collection plate or in major capital campaigns, due to the crisis really haven't been realized. Giving to churches in general is down due to the financial crisis, but so far the sexual abuse scandals haven't caused the steep declines some people anticipated.

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Warren, Pa.: How does the theological understanding of forgiveness relate to the current difficulties the church seems to have in dealing with bishops and the accountability to the larger society in which the church lives and moves?

John L. Allen, Jr.: There is some tension, in the sense that it can be tough for a Church that teaches repentance and rebirth to square that with a policy of zero tolerance and "one strike and you're out." Church officials have had to learn the hard way that you may want to forgive an abuser priest, but you certainly cannot, ever, put him in a position where he can abuse somebody else. I think the more basic problem is that for a long time, the Church operated on the basis of a sort of tribal morality among the clerical club, where you wanted to try to give struggling members of the club second and third chances. What that left out of view, of course, was the interests of the victims, their families, and the broader Church and society. That tribal morality had to be deconstructed and replaced with a much larger moral vision.

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Washington, D.C.: I went to a Catholic high school in the midwest 30 years ago where three of the priests at the school were later determined to be pedophiles - and the diocese is paying out money for damages for two of the priests. The school still operates, but it is struggling to stay open. My classmates still talk about these things, and we don't contribute to the school.

John L. Allen, Jr.: Your situation is hardly unique ... this crisis has taken a terrible toll on the Catholic Church, and I suspect it's far from over. While the crisis has erupted in the United States and parts of Europe, it really hasn't yet reached the southern hemisphere ... Latin America, Africa and Asia ... where two-thirds of the 1.1 billion Catholics today live.

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Tampa. Fla.: How will this affect the influence of the church (i.e., the Bishops) on the flock? Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008 despite intense opposition by the church hierarchy. Will this trend of the laity disregarding the bishops continue and accelerate? Or can the church hierarchy regain its political influence?

John L. Allen, Jr.: Influence is all relative, because many people would credit the U.S. bishops with having played a fairly significant role in holding the line on abortion funding in the health care debate --- one sign that they do still have some clout. But, if your question is whether the bishops can claim to speak for a unified bloc of Catholic opinion -- that is, if they can snap their fingers and get 67 million Catholics in America to vote their way -- the answer is, obviously not. My own sense is that the short-term future is that they will continue to be important forces and voices in American politics, but that at the grassroots American Catholics will likely continue to mirror the political divisions in the broader culture.

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Washington, D.C.: Fr. Raymond DeSouza writes here Culture change in the Church (National Post, March 25) In the 1960s, like much of society and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church simply abandoned her disciplinary life. Doctrinal dissent was not corrected, but often celebrated. Liturgical abuses, both minor and outrageously sacrilegious, were tolerated. Bishops simply stopped inquiring into priestly asceticism, prayer and holiness of life. Non-Catholics often have an image of the Catholic Church as a ruthlessly efficient organization with a chain of command that would make the armed forces jealous. The reality for most of the 1960s to 1980s was the opposite. A priest could preach heresy, profane the Holy Mass, destroy the piety of his people and face no consequences. The overseers decided to overlook everything. It is any surprise, then, that when accusations of criminal immorality emerged they too were dealt with inadequately, if at all?

Pope Benedict, in his bluntly-worded letter to Irish Catholics last week, wrote that the bishops "failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse." Too many bishops weren't Catholic enough. They failed, for example, to follow the clear direction of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that a cleric who commits sexual sin with a minor "is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants."

A culture of laxity had so infected bishops that their disciplinary muscles had severely atrophied. It was not as if they were vigilant rulers in all aspects, but perversely indulgent of sexual abuse. Indulgence was shown to abuses of all kinds. So latitudinarian had the clerical culture become that even modest attempts at doctrinal discipline were widely mocked -- or do we forget that the progressive press, inside and outside the Church, calling Joseph Ratzinger "God's Rottweiler"?

Would you share this opinion?

John L. Allen, Jr.: I would say that's the standard conservative diagnosis of what went wrong, famously expressed by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus as "fidelity, fidelity, fidelity." The standard liberal diagnosis, on the other hand, is that the sex abuse crisis is about an overly negative sexual morality, a repressive and dysfunctional clerical culture, and an arrogant and unaccountable hierarchy. I suppose I'm 'Catholic' enough to believe there's probably some truth to both views, and that either one, if pushed too hard, becomes an ideology rather than a helpful diagnosis.

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Macau, China: Will Pope Benedict papacy survive this issue?

John L. Allen, Jr.: If you mean, will the pope resign, I would say that's a long-shot. There are only a handful of cases of papal resignation in more than 2,000 years of church history, with the last one coming in the early 15th century. The moral realistic scenario, it seems to me, is that unless the Vatican and the Pope himself become much more willing to give an accounting for his entire record -- good, bad and mixed -- they could be tied down, if not paralyzed, for months to come putting out these fires.

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Baltimore, Md.: How can the Church justify their legislative activities fighting proven abuse-fighting measure like reporting laws?

Why doesn't the church reach out to their victims' organizations like SNAP to try to heal their wounds? They've really done nothing of the sort, and more and more victims are coming forward.

John L. Allen, Jr.: On the subject of mandatory reporter laws, the Vatican's official position is that where they're the law of the land, Church officials must obey. In general, however, they say that a bishop is supposed to be like a father to his priests, and they don't like putting a father in the position of being forced to report his own sons. Far better, they say, for the victims themselves to make the report, and then have the bishops and other Church officials cooperate fully with whatever the police and civil authorities decide. Make of that what you will, but that's the official line.

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St. Louis, Mo.: John, Is the New York Times doing a hit job on the Pope? Some of their reporting does not seem all that fair to Cardinal Ratzinger.

washingtonpost.com: Pope Benedict XVI

John L. Allen, Jr.: Well, the NYT did also just publish my op-ed more or less defending the Pope's record! Look, in general, my experience is that the media simply loves a good scandal, and that's mostly what's going on here, as opposed to any specific animus against the Pope. In any event, blaming the media isn't going to help the Vatican get out of this mess ... only a policy of transparency will do the trick at this stage.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Why aren't pedophile priests excommunicated from the church?

John L. Allen, Jr.: The standard penalty now is immediate removal from ministry, and in many cases expulsion from the priesthood. Formal excommunication usually requires "apostasy," meaning an open denial of a core principle of the faith. Bad conduct ... even truly diabolical conduct ... obviously must be punished, but traditionally excommunication is something else.

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washingtonpost.com: A Papal Conversion (The New York Times, March 27)

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Washington, DC: Do church leaders believe that there is still an ongoing problem within the clergy with regard to sexuality (e.g. same-sex attraction, sexual immaturity among young priests, priests themselves having been abused as children), or do they believe that the conditions that gave rise to these cases have been been fundamentally changed since the 1950s and '60s?

John L. Allen, Jr.: Their belief is generally that eternal vigilance is obviously required, but that the big problems in terms of recruiting and retaining psycho-sexually mature priests have already been solved. Typically they'll point to the data from the studies conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which found a big drop-off in the number of new cases after 1992.

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Doylestown, Pa.: Mr. Allen -- For years you've positioned yourself as a supporter of the Catholic Church's teaching, and of the authority of the papacy. Do you still support Catholic doctrine in its infallibility, and the authority of the Vicar of Christ? It would seem that you're posturing as an undercover agent seeking to discredit Pope Benedict XVI and his unwavering opposition to sex-abuse by clergy -- or anyone -- in the Catholic Church. Would you like to see the Catholic Church discredited as a voice of truth in this, and other issues? Please be honest.

John L. Allen, Jr.: Honestly? I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm a reporter and news analyst trying to make sense of a complicated story, and that's it.

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Atlanta, Ga.: From a non-Catholic, have there been abuse reports made in the Vatican itself?

John L. Allen, Jr.: If you mean, have there been accusations that sexual abuse has occurred inside the Vatican itself, not really ... there have been a few sexual scandals, but mostly they involve consenting adults. There are, of course, many critics who would fault the Vatican's corporate response to the crisis, but that's something else.

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While the crisis has erupted in the United States and parts of Europe, it really hasn't yet reached the southern hemisphere ... Latin America, Africa and Asia ... where two-thirds of the 1.1 billion Catholics today live. : Do you expect that the same abuses will surface in Latin America, Africa and Asia? Especially Latin America, where the Church has been an entrenched power for centuries.

John L. Allen, Jr.: My sense is that if this is truly a global crisis, there's no reason to think that bishops in other parts of the world handled it much differently in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, say, than in the United States or Europe, and hence that potentially an examination of the record in Latin America or Asia or Africa might unearth some of the same sort of embarrassing and painful revelations the Church has faced elsewhere.

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Scottsbluff, Neb.: Why have the law enforcement agencies ignored the crimes and let the priests walk? By letting the church handle their own affairs is criminal in itself.

John L. Allen, Jr.: Of course that's hardly their modus operandi anymore. Traditionally, there probably was a culture of deference to clergy that also shaped how many in law enforcement and civil prosecutors treated these cases, but those days are long gone.

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Priests: All things considered, is there a way to measure how these sex scandals have impacted the number of vocations/men entering the seminary? How are these men vetted? Are there priests who have resigned in view of the Church's inability or unwillingness to address these cases in an open and substantial way?

John L. Allen, Jr.: Not really, although recent years have shown a slight ... very slight .... up-tick in new entries to seminaries in the United States. Most priests in the field today came of age after the Church had already changed its policies and procedures on sex abuse, and in some sense are being made to carry the weight for a crisis they didn't create. You know what the popular math out in the street is these days: 'Catholic priest = potential pedophile.' That's tremendously unfair to so many good priests trying by their lights to do God's work, and I really feel for these guys.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: John, thanks for the chat. I know the current Pope will never get rid of celibacy for priests. Do you think the College of Cardinals will select maybe a more progressive-minded Pope at the next conclave?

John L. Allen, Jr.: I don't think any future Pope will simply get out of bed one morning and say, 'Okay, celibacy's gone.' I do think there may be some flexibility in parts of the world where the priest shortage is most intense. By the way, virtually all the experts agree that it's false to think that celibacy causes sexual abuse, so while there may be good reasons to take another look at the discipline of celibacy, it's not because of the sex abuse crisis.

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John L. Allen, Jr.: This has been a great hour, and I know there are many questions I didn't get to ... I'd invite you to check out my "All Things Catholic" column on the web site of the National Catholic Reporter to follow the discussion.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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