Time for the Vatican to take a new stand on sexual abuse

By Ruth Bertels

It was an ordinary August morning, Thursday, the 7th, to be precise, not yet too hot, filled with promise of a completed column, at least by mid-afternoon, with the possibility of a long walk to follow.

Then, there came the news on CNN that orders for the cover up of abused children by priests came from the Vatican, and had been kept secret for 40 years, according to CBS News correspondent, Vince Gonzales.

The policy was written in 1962 and was stored in the secret archives of the Vatican by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who died on August 3, 1979. The document focused on crimes initiated as part of the confessional relationship and what it calls the ‘worst crime,’ sexual assault committed by a priest or attempted by him with youths of either sex…”

Bishops were instructed “to pursue these cases in the most secretive way …restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone (including the alleged victim) …is to observe the strictest secret, which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.”

That evening, John Allen, reporter for The National Catholic Reporter, explained on CNN that the letter referred to an older period in the Church and to only the treatment of clergy abuse as an internal matter. Another representative from the New York-based Catholic League echoed Allen’s statement and demanded a retraction by CNN.

Personally, like many Catholic writers, I find such news difficult to treat, so much so that this piece was put up on the site last week, then taken down. Of course, it was the wrong decision. A document hidden in the Vatican archives concerning the abuse of children cannot be ignored, no matter how distressful it might be to either the writer or reader, nor how long it has been buried..

Richard Sipe, a former priest, who has written at length on the subject of sexual abuse by priests in his book, Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, is quoted by CBS, in reference to the newly discovered document, as saying: “This is the code for how you must deal with sex by priests. You keep it secret at all costs. And that’s what’s happened. It’s happened in every diocese in this country.” He concludes his work with these thoughts on celibacy:

“What of real value will remain if we reject a celibate/sexual power structure based on categories of superiority, and in turn demand personal application of the gospel message – a universal call to love? Won’t the religious world fall apart? Won’t chaos reign? No. Celibacy will persist – celibate love – and the process of celibacy genuinely entered into and honestly pursued. Marital love equally will remain, integrated and enhanced. The value of sex and its responsible use will be enhanced. Life will be more greatly treasured.” (Italics, mine)

That last sentence: “Life will be more greatly treasured” contains the heartfelt prayer of every sincere Catholic on both sides of the ocean. Treasuring life implies the willingness on behalf of shepherds to protect their flocks from every harm, no matter the personal cost.

While such protection may include one’s fellow bishops, or others in authority, it must not be offered at the expense of the most vulnerable, the little people in the pews.

Rome fails to understand, or refuses to face the reality that, despite, Ottaviani’s efforts long ago, there is nowhere to hide sexual abuse secrets forever, certainly not when they involve such a public figure as the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Rev. Marciel Maciel Degollado.

When a reporter approached Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the subject, he was angrily brushed off. Apparently, abuse of boys doesn’t rank up there with fighting off the evils of inclusive language in the liturgy, a married priesthood, or the ordination of women.

However, one would think that a prelate, versed in both moral and dogmatic theology, would take time to consider the special kind of scandal Rome’s ignoring Maciel’s moral turpitude presents to the abused, now-grown men, their families, and the entire Catholic world, for the order ( more properly described as a cult) has become world-wide, and continues to grow more powerful after the pattern of Opus Dei.

Does not the praying, thinking Body of Christ see the Vatican’s position as indifference to God’s people, indifference that philosophers tell us is the opposite of love, for it judges certain people as of no-account, expendable sheep, lost and not worth the finding? Protect Maciel at all costs, no matter who gets hurt in the bargain.

What is the result of such indifference? We have no way of measuring. The other day, over a cup of coffee, a mother of a large family looked at her friend and asked, “Do you ever get the feeling we’ve been had?”

When the laity begin to feel that they are expected to follow laws not required of those in authority, it doesn’t take long for bitterness to settle in, followed by confusion and sadness over their personal, tarnished Holy Grails.

Most hurtful of all is a mother’s scalding tears over the lessons she has taught her children down the years, which now appear to be meaningless. Lately, I’ve been receiving e-mails from such mothers, wondering what they are to say to their children, who tried the Legionaires way of life, and are now living in a desert of disillusionment.

An excellent Web site on this sect is: www.regainnetwork.org. You will find there testimonials of those who have been abused, along with excellent professional advice on recovering from the brain-washing common to all cults.

We on this side of the pond will continue to hope that the Vatican will follow O’Malley’s example, defrock Maciel, strip him of his position as head of the Legion, and set Rome on a new path of openness and compassion for the members of the hierarchy, priests and laity, who hunger for real leadership from Peter’s Throne.

Maciel’s abuse of the boys in his care is scandalous, yet Rome’s refusal to acknowledge the scandal by keeping him in power is another kind of scandal, and one is hard put to decide which does the greater harm to God’s people.

What we find in O’Malley’s prompt actions since taking over the Boston Archdiocese is his determination to shepherd the wounded sheep in his care, which includes everyone. No one has escaped the heartache of the moral failure of sexual abuse. .

As far as the question goes: “Do you think we’ve been had?” I’ve been pondering it a bit and have decided that we probably have “been had.” That hurts our pride some, doesn’t it? Yet, perhaps, in the Gospel sense, we’ve ended up “being fools for Christ’s sake.” And that’s a different story altogether.

By Ruth Bertels
August 18, 2003

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