George Weigel discusses the Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse

Published April 4, 2010

La Stampa

1. Many Italians do not understand why so many American lawyers, judges, newspapers, magazines and TV are raising accusations against the Vatican and against the person of the Pope regarding the sex abuses scandals. Can you please explain to us the atmosphere in America and its roots?

It is important to distinguish between the U.S. crisis of 2002 and this latest tempest of criticism of the Church. In 2002, the press did an important job of bringing to light situations of clerical sexual abuse and some bishops’ mishandling of that abuse that had too long been hidden. The Church, which had begun to address these problems seriously in the early 1990s, then accelerated its efforts to discipline abusers and to create safe environments for young people throughout American Catholicism. Those measures have worked. There are 68 million Catholics in the United States, and there were only six credible reports of the sexual abuse of a young person in the Church last year; that is, of course, six too many, but it completely falsifies the picture the press has painted of an ongoing crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church in the U.S.. Cardinal Ratzinger’s support of the bishops of the U.S. in their post-2002 efforts to put this awful problem behind us was a large part of the U.S. bishops’ success. The firestorm of the past few weeks has been shaped by several different factors, few of which have anything to do with protecting young people: grossly distorted reporting of abuse cases in Milwaukee and Munich, falsely implicating the Pope in cover-ups; the inability of American editors and reporters to understand that the Catholic Church is not a gigantic international corporation in which the Pope controls every aspect of Catholic life down to the parish level; commentators (and some reporters and editors) who see an opportunity to take the Catholic Church out of the public debate over issues like the nature of marriage and the right to life by painting a picture of the Church as a hypocritical criminal conspiracy of abusers and their enablers; and unscrupulous lawyers who see in that false portrait a way to bring the resources of the Vatican within the reach of American courts. The Church and its defenders were beginning to get a more fair hearing this past week; but then Father Cantalamessa made some exceptionally stupid and inappropriate remarks during the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, which have made the Church look insensitive and inept. I do not think, however, that serious Catholics have, as yet, been much affected by this recent controversy. At the same time, every serious Catholic wishes the Holy See would take a firmer grip on this story, get the facts out in a coherent, comprehensive, and compelling way, and take decisive action against prelates (as in Ireland) who were clearly irresponsible in handling abuse cases. 

2. You have also who fears that behind this “public offensive” in the US there is a “plot against the Catholic Church”. What do you answer to them? 

I’ve just described some of the interests that are at work in this, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a coordinated “plot.” There are political people and commentators on public affairs who want to destroy the moral credibility of the Church; there are lawyers pressing suits that would expose the Vatican to financial damage; there are anti-Catholic secularists who will take any occasion to beat the Church; and there are Catholics who see in all of this — however strangely — an opportunity to press again for the Revolution That Never Was (an end to priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, a kind of Catholic “congregationalism” in which the bishops’ authority is radically diminished). All of these people are having their say in the present tempest, but you cannot add it all up and come up with a “plot.” 

3. How do you judge the way the Vatican is handling the accuses on the sex abuses coming from different countries?

John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were helpful to the U.S. bishops in 2002, as they were trying to put even stronger measures against abusers in place. I thought Pope Benedict’s letter to the Church in Ireland was moving, sincere, and very strong; the fact remains that the Irish hierarchy has, as the Pope said, lost a lot of its credibility, so an effective follow-up to the Pope’s letter must include dramatic changes in the Church’s leadership in Ireland. The response from the Sala Stampa has been better in recent weeks, but I think it would be helpful if the Holy See would make more of its senior leaders available for serious conversation with reporters; Cardinal Levada’s recent interview with the New York Times was helpful here. 

4. Yesterday Father Cantalmessa, speaking from the Vatican, described a possible parallel between the bias against the Vatican and the antisemitism against the Jews. Do you agree with this interpretation?

These remarks were stupid in themselves; they were utterly inappropriate in a Good Friday liturgy; and they must have hurt Benedict XVI, who has done more than perhaps any other modern Catholic theologian to acknowledge the Catholic Church’s debt to God’s covenant with the Jewish people and to living Judaism. So, no, you may safely assume that I do not agree with this “interpretation.” 

5. In Kentucky and Oregon the top officials of the Vatican may be requested to be in Court to answer to the accusations. What should they do?

The Vatican has good legal counsel on this, so it doesn’t need my advice.

6. How is this story about the sex abuses affecting the public image of the Catholic Church in the US?

It depends on the audience. Serious Catholics know that the Church had a problem, has dealt with it, and is now the safest environment for young people in America; serious Catholics are also deeply offended by news stories, editorials, and cartoons suggesting that all priests are sexual predators. This kind of vicious anti-Catholic bias has to be challenged for the gross prejudice and calumny that it is.  

People who dislike Catholicism for various reasons will find in distorted news and commentary more reasons to dislike the Church, of course. It’s too early to measure the effect of all of this on the Church’s pro-life witness, but the pro-life movement remained strong after 2002, and I don’t think it will be seriously undermined by the current controversies.

Perhaps most importantly, tens of thousands of people were baptized in the Catholic Church or entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil this year — that tells you something important about the vitality of Catholicism in the United States. 

7. Please add anything thing more you may consider relevant:

Let me emphasize again that, in the U.S. perspective, 2002 and 2010 are different. The problems brought to light in 2002 were real, and they have been dealt with. The current controversy cannot be about the ongoing abuse of young people in the Catholic Church in the United States, because there is no crisis of abuse in the Church in America today. The Irish crisis is being dealt with, I hope, firmly and vigorously; let me repeat that a massive change in the Church’s leadership in Ireland is required. 

The current controversy seems to have a lot to do with the “culture-war” that is being fought throughout the West. The Catholic Church is the last institutional defender of the idea that there are moral truths built into the world and into human beings: truths we can know by reason, and truths that set the boundaries within which we can live good and noble lives. There are powerful forces in the West that deny that such truths exist, and that urge us to believe that humanity is infinitely plastic and malleable: that “marriage” can mean what the law says it means; that sex is simply another form of sports; that unborn human beings, radically handicapped human beings, and gravely ill human beings count for nothing; and that coercive state power can and should impose what Cardinal Ratzinger once called a “dictatorship of relativism.” Those powerful forces see in the failures of some of the sons and daughters of the Church — and the past mishandling of these failures by some Church authorities — an opportunity to destroy the public moral teaching authority of the Church. That sinful priests and religious, and incompetent and irresponsible bishops, have, by their actions in the past, given the Church’s critics weapons with which to attack Catholicism is undeniable; that is all the more reason for serious Catholics to recommit themselves to authentically Catholic reform, and for the senior leadership of the Church to enforce the Church’s discipline rigorously. 

You can also read the interview as it appeared in La Stampa (in Italian) here.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.



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