Which Scandal? Part Two

I

On September 12, Pope Francis called for what has been dubbed a “child protection summit” to be attended by “all the presidents of national conferences of Catholic bishops from around the world.”

As John L. Allen, Jr. wrote, “It’s rare for the Vatican to summon all the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences for any reason, and it’s the first time ever the Vatican has convened such a cross-section of senior leadership to talk about the abuse crisis.”

The response has been less-than-enthusiastic. Victims of abuse are understandably skeptical. The former head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told the Washington Post that “There’s absolutely no reason to think any good will come of such a meeting . . . Catholic officials have had decades to reform. To an overwhelming degree, they haven’t and they won’t.”

Another group that is skeptical, albeit for very different reasons, are the Pope’s American conservative critics. On his Twitter feed,  Raymond Arroyo of EWTN wrote “In announcing the synod for ‘the protection of minors,’ the Vatican has sought to recast the sex abuse crisis. In the US and parts of Europe the protection of minors has been largely dealt with. This latest fallout is over bishop’s abusing their power + the abuse of seminarians.”

Arroyo’s comment was both odd and telling. It’s odd because he seems to have forgotten what the word “Catholic” means: universal. The Catholic Church is more than “the US and parts of Europe.” For instance, Chile is neither the United States nor a part of Europe. And if you ask a Chilean whether “the protection of minors has been largely dealt with,” prepare to be laughed at, spit upon, or worse.

In much of the world, including most of Europe, the reckoning has only begun or has yet to happen. The Vatican’s announcement coincided with the release of “a study commissioned by the German Bishops Conference [that] examined 3,677 cases of abuse allegedly perpetrated by clergy nationwide” between 1946 and 2014. Should German Catholics believe that “the protection of minors has been largely dealt with?”

Arroyo’s tweet is telling because, by using the word “recast,” he makes it clear that he and other members of the Catholic commentariat see that the scandal, as I wrote in Part One, is “an opportunity for them to talk about what they believe is wrong with the Church in general and the current Pope in particular.”

II

Understanding this belief requires going back to 2002 when the sexual abuse scandal first broke. The horror of what was revealed by the Boston Globe and other outlets prompted some obvious questions about the causes of the crisis.

While there were many proposed answers to these questions, such as the impact of priestly celibacy, the one that gained the most traction was the presence of gay men in the priesthood. After all, an estimated eighty percent of the victims and one hundred percent of the perpetrators were male.

This connection was reinforced by reports and/or impressions that a large percentage of the cases of sexual abuse involved older teenage boys, i.e., 16-to-17 years old. The word “ephebophilia,” which is defined as “the primary sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents,” entered the discussion. (As it turns out, the majority of those abused  were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, while “only” 15 percent were 16-and-17-year-olds of either sex.)

Thus, for many conservative commentators, the sexual abuse of minors was, in significant part, a manifestation of the sexual appetites of gay men, which, in turn, raised the larger issue of gay men in priesthood.

This interpretation was reinforced by the concurrent-but-factually-unrelated story about then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who was revealed to have used church funds to pay his former gay lover $450,000 to keep quiet about the affair.

In 2005, the Vatican issued an Instruction entitled “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.

The Instruction distinguished what it called “homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem – for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded,” from those “who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or who support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” The former are not automatically excluded from the priesthood while the latter are.

The Instruction was reaffirmed in a 2016 document issued by the Congregation for the Clergy entitled “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.” The document came as a gut punch to those who interpreted some of Pope Francis’ statements as signaling a change in the Church’s position on gay men in the priesthood.

Nothing had changed, a point that the Pope himself has made clear. As the Pope reportedly put it, “Keep an eye on the admissions to seminaries, keep your eyes open . . . If in doubt, better not let them enter.”

As it turned out, the next chapter in this story wasn’t about seminarians but the bishops, or more precisely one bishop: former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick.

III

Over two decades, McCarrick preyed on who-knows-how-many seminarians and young priests in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. I’ll spare you (and myself) the nauseating details. Ultimately, though, what brought about his downfall were reports that he sexually abused a teenager forty-seven years ago.

Before McCarrick fell he rose to great heights, despite the fact that his predations weren’t exactly Top Secret in Catholic circles. As the Times told readers “Between 1994 and 2008, multiple reports about the cardinal’s transgressions with adult seminary students were made to American bishops, the pope’s representative in Washington and, finally, Pope Benedict XVI.” At least two lawsuits against McCarrick were settled out-of-court.

Yet it wasn’t until late July that he was forced out of the College of Cardinals — the first time that had happened in 91 years — and ordered by the Pope “to remain in seclusion, and in prayer, until a church trial considers further sanctions,” sanctions that may include being defrocked.

That still leaves the question “Why wasn’t something done about McCarrick earlier?” The “answer” that has gotten the most attention is an eleven-page “Testimony” written by the former Papal Nuncio, Vatican-speak for Ambassador, to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

In it, he says that Pope Francis knew about the accusations soon after he became Pope and failed to act. More explosively, he claimed that “Francis actually repealed sanctions imposed on McCarrick by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in the late 2000s.”

He then called on Pope Francis to resign, a call that was echoed by many of the Pope’s critics in the commentariat.

No sooner had this happened than this part of the Archbishop’s story began to unravel under scrutiny, culminating in the National Catholic Register, which published Viganò’s “Testimony,” walking back the most explosive charge — Francis’ repealing the sanctions — when it became clear that the “sanctions” were, like The Pirate’s Code,  more like guidelines and not actual rules.

By then, Viganò had gone into hiding from, according to the more conspiratorially-minded elements of the commentariat, the Vatican Intelligence Service “Vatican spies.”

IV

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the sexual abuse of minors, the answer is “very little, if anything.” In fact, it’s a distraction.

Less than two weeks after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was made public, the story about the horrific abuse was, at least in the Catholic commentariat, completely eclipsed (forgotten?) by what the Times calls the “Vatican Power Struggle.”

This “power struggle” is an argument between a relative handful of commentators and their clerical supporters in the US and parts of Europe.

In the meantime,  the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, which is part of Europe, is just beginning to come to terms with what happened between 1945 and 2010. Here in the United States, attorneys general from “Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico” in addition to the New York Attorney General, have “said they will investigate sex abuse by Catholic priests in their states and have asked local dioceses for records.”

While many ordinary Catholic all over the world, as well as in the US and parts of Europe, have been shaken by the revelations of clerical abuse, they couldn’t care less about the kind of inside baseball that has dominated the commentariat.

Perhaps the guy from SNAP is right and the Child Protection Summit will be all show and no go. But calling the problem “largely dealt with” is absurd and not a little obscene. And calling the Summit an attempt to “recast” the crisis is an almost-comical (if the topic weren’t so tragic) exercise in what Freud called “projection.”

Lord, have mercy.


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