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Debate continues over pope's reaction to sex-abuse scandal

Alan Cooperman
Washington Post
Apr. 2, 2005 07:00 PM

During his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican's associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution of Galileo.

He apologized so often, in fact, that an Italian journalist compiled a book of more than 90 papal statements of contrition.

Yet the pope never apologized for the most shocking behavior that came to light on his watch: sexual abuse of children by priests and the church's attempts to hush it up. To some alleged victims, that is a puzzling omission and a deep stain on his legacy.

"I would hate to see all the good works this pope has done over his lifetime be overshadowed by this scandal. But that's what may happen," said Gary M. Bergeron, of Lowell, Mass., who says he was molested in the 1970s by Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a priest accused of abusing more than a dozen altar boys. Birmingham has since died.

John Paul's defenders contend that sexual misconduct by priests is a worldwide problem that began before he became pope in 1978. They say once it came to light, he reacted decisively. Summoning America's cardinals to the Vatican in April 2002, he declared that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Those words became the basis for the "zero tolerance" policy adopted two months later by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Over the following year, hundreds of priests resigned, retired or were suspended as the bishops pledged to remove any clergyman who had ever abused a minor.

But victims' advocates argue that John Paul could have done more, and they hope his successor will set a new tone, beginning with a straightforward apology to victims.

Bergeron and other Boston-area survivors of clergy abuse traveled to Rome in 2003 to try to persuade the pope to meet with victims, issue an apology and condemn coverups. The small delegation included Bergeron's father, Joseph, who said that he, too, was abused as an altar boy but kept silent until he discovered many years later that the same thing had happened to two of his sons.

For five days that March, the Bergerons literally knocked on Vatican doors. Eventually they saw an official from the papal secretary of state's office. John Paul never met with them or any other known victims.

Still churchgoing Catholics, the Bergerons said they believe the pope was kept in the dark by his aides. "It's almost like a movie star complex where they don't let them read the bad press," Gary Bergeron said.

Others are more harsh in their judgments.

"I would say there's a significant amount of responsibility in the lap of the papacy for the sexual abuse crisis, not only in the United States but around the world," said Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former Air Force chaplain who has counseled many victims and advised them on lawsuits against the church. "Given that the Vatican insists on hierarchical authority and micromanagement, I think they have to take responsibility."

As a young canon lawyer in the mid-1980s, Doyle worked at the Vatican's embassy in Washington during the first major sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church, which centered on a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe.

"Reports went over there, detailed reports," Doyle said. "I can tell you for certain that it reached the Vatican early in 1985, because I was working at the Vatican Embassy and I know that communications about the Gauthe case were sent to the Vatican - and they were seen by the pope."

But John Paul did not speak publicly about sexual abuse by priests until eight years later, after a furor over another pedophile priest, James Porter, who had more than 100 alleged victims in Fall River, Mass.

Addressing a group of visiting U.S. bishops in Rome in 1993, the pope said he shared their "sadness and disappointment when those entrusted with the ministry fail in their commitment, becoming a cause of public scandal." Much of his message, however, was an attack on "sensationalism" in the news media, leaving the strong impression that he believed the sex abuse problem was exaggerated in America.

"Woe to societies where scandal becomes an everyday event," he said.

Nevertheless, at the request of U.S. bishops, the pope in 1994 changed church law in the United States to lengthen the statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse to 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday. Previously, it had been five years from the date of the offense.

In 2002, a fresh scandal erupted when a Boston judge released church documents showing that Cardinal Bernard Law and his assistant bishops had secretly shuffled abusers from parish to parish. In response, John Paul amended canon law again by accepting the bishops' zero tolerance policy, though only after Vatican officials insisted on changes to protect the due process rights of accused priests. Law later resigned under pressure.

In recent years the pontiff also condemned sexual abuse more directly and forcefully. In his address to U.S. cardinals in April 2002, he said it was "rightly considered a crime by society" as well as "an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

"To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," he added. It was the closest he came to an apology.

To many victims and their families, however, the pope's actions fell short. Under John Paul, they contend, the Vatican was more aggressive about stamping out dissent within the priesthood over birth control than it was about protecting children.

"Everyone blames the bishops, but the pope's the one who picks them," Doyle said.

Papal biographer George Weigel argues that the critics' portrayal of an uncaring John Paul is wrong. He said John Paul was "deeply, deeply grieved" by the unholy actions of supposedly holy men.

Other Vatican officials have echoed the papal denunciations. As recently as March 25, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's theological watchdog and one of John Paul's closest aides, made an apparent reference to clerical sex abuse in the meditations he provided for Good Friday observances in Rome. In a Vatican translation, Ratzinger assailed "how much filth there is in the church ... even among ... the priesthood...."

Like many traditionalist Catholics, Weigel contends that the origins of the scandal lie in the 1960s, under previous popes who tolerated dissent and allowed a gay subculture to develop in the priesthood. The solution, in his view, is to continue down the path set by John Paul: strict fidelity to church teachings that support celibacy for priests and condemn homosexual activity.

In his 2002 book, "The Courage to Be Catholic," however, Weigel acknowledged that the Vatican was slow to recognize the crisis in the U.S. church, tending to view the scandal as a creation of the secular news media, opportunistic lawyers and the church's enemies.

Debate over the pope's degree of responsibility for the scandal appears likely to continue for years.

Richard R. Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo who has written several books on authority in the church, said that neither John Paul nor any church leader "consciously encouraged" clerical sex abuse.

But Gaillardetz said he would assign the pope some indirect responsibility for the hierarchy's attempts to hide the problem.

"He encouraged an ecclesiastical culture that emphasizes vertical accountability - priest to bishop, bishop to the pope - and very little horizontal accountability" of bishops to one another and to the laity, Gaillardetz said.

"In general that is going to be one of the most serious criticisms leveled against this papacy, that he turned away from the direction many people saw in Vatican II, which is the principle of subsidiarity or decentralized control," Gaillardetz added, referring to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "That is a disturbing pattern, a larger pattern of this pontificate."

David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church," a 2003 book about long-term change in the church, also attributes the coverup partly to John Paul's insistence on central control.

"The bottom line is: Cardinal Law was the pope's favorite son in America, and Cardinal Law's sense of a corporate church that he ran, with everybody else on a need-to-know basis, was very much an attitude that came from Rome. Rome did not want scandals. Rome under this papacy was focused on exalting the iconic image of the priest," Gibson said.

Rightly or wrongly, Gibson contends, the sexual abuse scandal and John Paul will be inextricably linked.

"After so many years as pope, people have almost begun to forget what a heroic figure he was and how close he came to being martyred on St. Peter's Square," he said. "The scandal is not going to define his legacy, but it does mean that every obituary, every discussion of his legacy, will have to say, 'But ...' "