New York Times flashback: Is hiding sex scandals among bishops just the 'Roman way'?

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When you read the lede on the following USA Today report, it’s pretty clear which issue the editors think is at the heart of the 30-plus year long scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

Yes, I am sorry to bring this up again, but this information is important for reporters and editors who are trying to understand the current divisions inside the world’s largest Christian flock.

This has nothing to do with Donald Trump and Catholics who hang out with Steve Bannon. It a lot to do with statistics, doctrine and the contents of a good dictionary.

Words matter. By the end of this post, we’ll see — in a 2009 case study — that this has always been the case. Using the right words, and avoiding others, helps people keep secrets.

Let’s begin. Read the following carefully:

VATICAN CITY — The latest — and most serious — wave of pedophilia and cover-up allegations to hit the Vatican is shining a new light on the gap dividing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And almost none of it is about the charges of widespread clerical abuse scandals.

Dozens of commentators and Vatican watchers have pointed to the wide gap between the views of conservative, traditional Catholics in the mold of Pope Benedict XVI and those of reform-minded Catholics like Pope Francis. Many media have referred to what is happening as a kind of “civil war.”

Yes, that passage does include another example of journalists using “reform” as a dog whistle to make sure that readers know which Catholics are good and which Catholics are evil. However, we need to move on, in this case (click here for more information on that bias issue).

The lede clearly states that “pedophilia” is the crucial issue in this crisis. Now, what does that word mean, when you look it up in a dictionary? Here is the online Merriam-Webster:

pedophilia noun

: sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object

specifically: a psychiatric disorder in which an adult has sexual fantasies about or engages in sexual acts with a prepubescent child

Note the specifics attached to the general information. Now, ask this question: Statistically speaking, are most of the victims in this abuse crisis “prepubescent” children?

The answer, of course is “no.” It can, however, be noted that many of the victims are young boys who are first abused at age 10-12 — meaning that they are being “groomed” for sex precisely at the moment when they become teens.

Here is the next question: Is the crisis linked to ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick primarily about the few cases in which this highly influential American shepherd was accused of abusing young victims (setting aside, for a moment, whether they were prepubescent boys or not)?

No, the abuse of children isn’t the most divisive issue right now. As many journalists have noted, there is evidence that Catholic leaders — in the United States — have made major headway in protecting young children in the years since 2002, and the “Spotlight” investigations at The Boston Globe.

So what are the main issues right now, especially after the testimony (full text here) from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano — the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador — attacking key figures in power networks that lead to the Vatican? Read the top of this lengthy and important New York Times story from late last week:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis summoned bishops from around the world to Rome for an unprecedented meeting focused on protecting minors. The order … comes as the pope wrestles with a global clerical sexual abuse crisis and explosive accusations of a cover-up that have shaken his papacy and the entire Roman Catholic Church.

The extraordinary meeting marks the first time that presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide have been summoned for a meeting on a specific topic — more than 100 will be there — and the choice of topic was telling. Just last month, the Vatican’s former ambassador in the United States accused the pope of willfully ignoring a history of sexual misconduct by an American cardinal.

Once again, the assumption is that the major issue in play RIGHT NOW is the sexual abuse of children. In this case, the use of the word “minors” is vague, but certainly better than the inaccurate USA Today reference to pedophilia.

Down in the Times report, there is this interesting information about the upcoming gathering:

“It’s a crucial decision by the pope because the conferences play a crucial role in implementing all the prevention measures to protect against sexual abuse in the church,” said Prof. Ernesto Caffo, a member of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Professor Caffo said the conference would focus on training bishops to spot abuse, hold one another accountable and to intervene. They will also be taught to listen to victims.

The guidelines, he said, would be aimed at protecting not just children but also vulnerable adults, including the handicapped and seminarians.

There we go. That wasn’t hard, was it?


If McCarrick is at the heart of this story, and he is, then any list of the hottest issues in the current crisis would have to include:

(a) The network of cardinals who promoted and protected him, symbolizing the ongoing struggle to punish bishops, archbishops and cardinals who have committed abuse and helped hide abusers.

(b) Controversies about the health of many Catholic seminaries and reports of systemic sexual abuse and harassment of students — by faculty and other church leaders.

(c) Clouds of secrecy surrounding “celibate” priests, bishops and cardinals — gay and straight — who are sexually active with consenting adults or adults who work under their authority.

Where are those issues in the USA Today story referenced up top and this large New York Times feature? Good luck with that search.

Now, if you are looking for an honest, although one-sided, Times report on hot issues in this Catholic “civil war,” all one needs to do is flash back to a 2009 profile of the gay Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, a standard bearer for liberal Catholics who were and are seeking doctrinal “reform.” Here is the overture:

In spring 2002, as the scandal over sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests was escalating, the long career of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, one of the church’s most venerable voices for change, went up in flames one May morning.

On the ABC program “Good Morning America,” the archbishop watched a man he had fallen in love with 23 years earlier say in an interview that the Milwaukee archdiocese had paid him $450,000 years before to keep quiet about his affair with the archbishop — an affair the man was now calling date rape.

The next day, the Vatican accepted Archbishop Weakland’s retirement.

Archbishop Weakland, who had been the intellectual touchstone for church reformers, has said little publicly since then. But now, in an interview and in a memoir scheduled for release next month, he is speaking out about how internal church politics affected his response to the fallout from his affair; how bishops and the Vatican cared more about the rights of abusive priests than about their victims; and why Catholic teaching on homosexuality is wrong.

“If we say our God is an all-loving god,” he said, “how do you explain that at any given time probably 400 million living on the planet at one time would be gay? Are the religions of the world, as does Catholicism, saying to those hundreds of millions of people, you have to pass your whole life without any physical, genital expression of that love?”

What Weakland defended openly, many influential Catholics continue to advocate from strategic locations inside the halls of Catholic power, in academia and in ecclesiastical offices in Rome and elsewhere.

The crucial question that has been debated for decades: Do celibacy vows include same-sex activities or do these vows only forbid heterosexual unions?

It should be noted that the heavily documented writings of liberal Richard Sipe and conservative Leon Podles include numerous cases in which abuser priests told their young male victims that same-sex acts were not sinful and that God had created them to be sexual partners for priests, to help relieve tension and stress in their ministries.

This brings me to one final quote from this Weakland profile, which has obvious implications for the current debates.

What happened when Weakland considered explaining his affair to Rome?

Archbishop Weakland said he probably should have gone to Rome and explained that he had had a relationship with Mr. Marcoux, that he had ended it by writing an emotional letter that Mr. Marcoux still had and that the archbishop’s lawyers regarded Mr. Marcoux’s threats as blackmail.

But, the archbishop said, a highly placed friend in Rome advised him that church officials preferred that such things be hushed up, which is “the Roman way.”

“I suppose, also, being frank, I wouldn’t have wanted to be labeled in Rome at that point as gay,” Archbishop Weakland said. “Rome is a little village.”

Also this:

The morning in 2002 that Mr. Marcoux surfaced on national television, Archbishop Weakland said he phoned the pope’s representative, or apostolic nuncio, in Washington — Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo — who, he said, told him, “Of course you are going to deny it.”

After all, it was just sex between consenting adults and, well, one of them was an archbishop, who happened to believe that the Catholic Catechism was wrong on this issue.

So one more time: What are the core issues in the current crisis?

There is way more to this story than the hellish world of pedophilia or even tragic cases involving the abuse of minors.

It’s about clouds of secrecy and “the Roman way.”

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