In Facing Evil, the Vatican Blinks

Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," is working on a book with Gerald Renner about the Vatican and American Catholic Church.

Last month, four Vatican officials and four American bishops met in Rome to revise the proposed zero-tolerance policy for sexually abusive priests that an American bishops’ conference adopted last summer. Their instrument of retreat was the Code of Canon Law, an archaic standard of justice ill suited to deal with the sex abuse crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church. Survivors of clergy abuse rightly protested the proposed revisions, claiming that they gut the intent of the get-tough policy.

Among other things, the group emphasized priests’ rights of presumed innocence, and it clarified the definition of sexual abuse. The eight officials agreed to a 10-year statute of limitations on sex abuse charges, which, under Canon 489, would allow a bishop to destroy an accused priest’s incriminating files, a change that would surely complicate matters with law enforcement because many states have longer time frames. The American bishops will vote on the changes this week.

Ironically, the Vatican’s intervention came as Irish public television aired “Cardinal Secrets,” a documentary exposing how Dublin church officials sheltered priests who had abused children over the years. As the Irish government launched an investigation, a justice minister likened the Code of Canon Law to “the rules of a golf club.”

The American bishops’ youth-protection charter, democratically adopted by about 300 American bishops in Dallas last June, was not perfect, but it provided something that the Roman Catholic Church desperately needed: the influence of laypeople, a separation of powers to mitigate the church hierarchy’s entrenched secrecy. The charter created a national lay review board, chaired by outgoing Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. The board has held hearings and has a mandate to research the crisis. Lay boards would undertake a similar mission at the diocesan level.


The bishops took another solid step last week, naming Kathleen McChesney, a top-ranking FBI official, as the head of the American church’s new Office for Child and Youth Protection.

The plan adopted in Dallas also included a set of norms, or church guidelines, subject to canon law and approval by Rome.

The proposed revisions, however, appear to emasculate local boards to advisory status. Rome wants only Catholics to serve, as if a board would be weakened by, say, a Jewish therapist like Leslie Lothstein of the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., a clinical psychologist who has treated dozens of child-molesting priests.

By shifting power to canonical standards, the Vatican has unwittingly invited scrutiny of the church’s core crisis: its lack of oversight capacity. Democracy is not holy, but canon law has nothing equivalent to independent prosecutors or watchdogs, like the General Accounting Office, which investigates the government for Congress. An egregious example of this deficiency in church governance happened at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The body has historically monitored theologians.


In 1998, eight former seminarians of the Legion of Christ, a religious order admired by Pope John Paul II, accused the director, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, of sexually abusing them in Spain and Rome in the 1950s and ‘60s. The men tried for years to reach the pope, but he never responded to their letters.

The accusers, a Spanish priest and seven Mexican laymen, followed the Code of Canon Law to the letter, using experienced canon lawyers from Mexico City and the Vatican. They accused Maciel of forgiving their “sins” in confession. Abuse of the sacrament of penance is one of the most serious delicts, or crimes, in the canonical code, punishable by excommunication. Ratzinger allowed no testimony and aborted the proceeding in 1999. Last spring, when Brian Ross of ABC-TV’s “20/20" approached the cardinal in front of his office in Rome, seeking comment on the case, Ratzinger slapped him on the wrist and refused to talk.

Such secretive tribunals are a medieval system prone to abuse, as Father John Bambrick learned. As a teenager, he was allegedly abused by Father Anthony Eremito. Emboldened by the survivors’ movement, Bambrick learned that Eremito was a hospital chaplain in Texas and complained to Cardinal Edward Egan of the New York archdiocese, where Eremito had ministered for many years. Eremito resigned and was suspended from the active priesthood.

Not to be outdone, Eremito turned to Msgr. William Varvaro, a former president of the Canon Law Society of America and a member of the papal staff. Varvaro filed a canonical grievance against the young priest for violating Eremito’s right to privacy. “Surreally, I was charged under 1717, the same canon used against perpetrators,” said Bambrick. Although Bambrick’s bishop cleared him after a secret investigation, Egan’s lay review board will not allow the young priest to testify against the older priest who abused him and others.

This muddle of a system bestirred Father Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington and now an Air Force chaplain, to issue on the Internet a critique of the revised policy. In 1985, after researching the emerging sexual abuse litigation against priests, Doyle had warned a canonists’ convention that pedophilia was “the greatest problem we in the church have faced in centuries.” His warning and a subsequent report on the emerging crisis that he cowrote were ignored by the church hierarchy.

“These [revised] norms return total control to [bishops] along with glaring loopholes that can possibly allow proven sexual offenders to either return to or continue in ministry,” Doyle writes on the Internet. “The lay review boards have no decisive power and the potential exists to completely neutralize them.... This means that the Vatican retains the power to control the process, to reimpose the shroud of pathological secrecy on cases and to apply its own procedural laws.”

As the weary bishops head toward a vote on the revised norms in Washington, they are at a rare turning point. For years, the Vatican tried to reduce the power of national bishops’ conferences as the American hierarchy issued visionary pastoral letters on nuclear arms and economic ethics. But when the bishops confronted the sex abuse crisis, Rome stood detached. Under pressure by the clergy-abuse survivors, the American bishops came up with a plan that still has the potential to work in many countries -- unless Rome undercuts it. If that happens, the Roman Curia will hand a greater scandal to the next pope.