seminarians

Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.

The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.

Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.” He promised, once again, that “concrete” changes were ahead.

What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.

To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:

What has changed?

This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.

“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”

How concrete remains the big issue.

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'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

Catholic shepherds from around the world gathered at the Vatican to talk about clergy sexual abuse, surrounded by journalists and victims asking lots of questions.

In the end, the only words that will matter — in terms of shaping life in Catholic institutions rocked by decades of scandal — will come from Pope Francis himself, aided by the close circle of cardinals and aides who helped plan this much-anticipated summit and kept it focused on a narrow and relatively safe subject — the abuse of “children.”

In other words, this painful puzzle will be solved by the men who have been in charge all along, including some men involved in the long and complicated career of former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. That’s all Catholics around the world are going to get, for now.

You can sense the anticlimax in the first lines of this wrap-up report from The New York Times:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse by calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and insisting that the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”

But for all the vivid language and the vow “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope’s speech was short on the sort of detailed battle plan demanded by many Catholics around the world.

Francis had barely finished speaking before some abuse victims and other frustrated faithful began expressing outrage and disappointment at his failure to outline immediate and concrete steps to address the problem.

After spending most of this weekend swimming upstream in the coverage from Rome (along with early #hashtagconfusion news from the United Methodist LGBTQ conference), I actually think that the most important story was a blockbuster Associated Press report from veteran Nicole Winfield.

This story focused on two topics that the principalities and powers in Rome worked so hard to keep out of the headlines — seminarians and the pope’s on connections to the issue of episcopal oversight.

The headline on this story at US News & World Report captured the timing issue: “Argentine Bishop's Case Overshadows Pope's Sex Abuse Summit.” Here’s the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis may have wrapped up his clergy sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican, but a scandal over an Argentine bishop close to him is only gaining steam.

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Early Vatican tea leaves: Pope mentions 'pedophilia,' while a public memo includes some land mines

Early Vatican tea leaves: Pope mentions 'pedophilia,' while a public memo includes some land mines

So the tsunami of reporting from Rome has begun.

I hope there are lots of GetReligion podcast listeners reading this latest update on the event now known as “The Protection of Minors in the Church” — previously that was “The Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults in the Church” (italics added). If there are, let me note a few predictions about this event that I made in the past (for starters, here, here, here, here and here):

* The emphasis will be on the sexual abuse of “children,” with little or no public discussion of ephebophilia — intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people.

* There will be some kind of high-profile penitential rite expressing sorrow and seeking forgiveness from victims, in part to help provide visuals for television newsrooms without religion specialists.

* It will be shocking if progress is made on this key issue: Creating procedures for dealing with the sins and crimes of bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

* The key word remains — “seminarians.” That is the door into discussions of secrecy and power networks within the church. What about this word, as well — “McCarrick”?

So now we have the first remarks from Pope Francis, as the event opened for business. The Vatican also handed out a “talking points” document that may have — in terms of public discussions — put several of the hot-button topics into play. Hold that thought.

There is a crucial translation issue in this Washington Post overture.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis opened a landmark summit Thursday on preventing clerical sexual abuse, saying Catholics were looking to church leaders not for “simple and predictable condemnations” but for “concrete and effective measures” to deal with the scourge. 

“May the Virgin Mary enlighten us as we seek to heal the grave wounds that the scandal of pedophilia has caused” in both children and believers, Francis said, according to an official Vatican translation.

He called sexual abuse a “scourge” and urged the prelates in attendance to “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice.” He said the assembled Catholic leaders were obliged to discuss, frankly and in depth, “how to confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity.”

Ah, as often happens with remarks by Pope Francis, we may have a translation issue. Did he really say this is a “pedophilia” scandal?

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'Abuse of minors' -- Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment

'Abuse of minors' -- Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment

Over the past 30-plus years or so, I have heard some Catholic conservatives try to blame the church’s “pedophilia” crisis on gays in the priesthood.

But for every Catholic activist that I’ve heard veer in that direction, I have heard 100 or so stress that the “pedophilia” label is inaccurate and misleading.

Why? By definition, true pedophiles are driven to have sex with pre-pubescent children. While this ongoing Catholic scandal has involved cases of pedophilia, those crimes are relatively rare and it’s accurate to stress that true pedophiles act out against children of both genders. This fact frequently appears in news reports as evidence that homosexuality plays little or no role in this ongoing crisis.

Those who dig into the facts know that most Catholic sexual-abuse cases involve ephebophilia — intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens. The overwhelming majority of Catholic clergy cases involve adult males stalking and abusing young males.

So what’s the big idea? To be blunt, men who want to have sex with teen-aged girls tend to have sex with teen-aged girls. Men who want to have sex with teen-aged boys tend to have sex with teen-aged boys. Men who want to have sex with women tend to abuse or have sex with women (including nuns). Men who want to have sex with men tend to abuse or have sex with men (including seminarians).

Right now, the Catholic establishment wants to talk about the sexual abuse of “children.” Conservative Catholics want to hear frank talk about the abuse of teen-agers and adults, including the sins and crimes of bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at the New York Times coverage of a crucial press conference staged ahead of the Vatican’s much anticipated assembly, with this title, “The Protection of Minors in the Church.”

The original name for the gathering was “The Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults in the Church.” That’s a very, very important edit.

Here’s the headline on the Times story: “Vatican Hopes Meeting on Child Sex Abuse Will Be a Turning Point.” Spot the key word in that equation? Here’s the overture:

VATICAN CITY — In the decades since the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children first exploded, the Roman Catholic church has struggled to resolve a scourge that has eroded its credibility, driven away the faithful and stained its priests, bishops, cardinals and popes.

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What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

There are few relationships in the world of mainstream religion that are more private, and often mysterious, than the bonds between a priest and a penitent who comes to Confession.

This is especially true when the priest hears the same person’s Confessions over and over for years — even taking on the role of people a believer’s “spiritual father” and guide in life.

So what happens when a priest becomes a bishop? Bishops, cardinals and even popes need to go to Confession and some may even retain ties with their “spiritual fathers” as they climb the ecclesiastical ladder.

Why do I bring this up?

I do so because of a fine detail way down in an Associated Press report that — for a moment, forget teens in MAGA hats and Twitter storms by journalists — may turn out to be a crucial turning point in the complicated story of Pope Francis and wayward bishops involved, in various ways, with sexual abuse.

We will get to the Confessional in a moment. Here is the long, but crucial AP overture:

The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told The Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.

Francis accepted Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's resignation in August 2017, after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and a former vicar, seminary rector and another prelate provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians, said the former vicar, the Rev. Juan Jose Manzano.

The scandal over Zanchetta, 54, is the latest to implicate Francis as he and the Catholic hierarchy as a whole face an unprecedented crisis of confidence over their mishandling of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with adults. Francis has summoned church leaders to a summit next month to chart the course forward for the universal church, but his own actions in individual cases are increasingly in the spotlight.

The pope's decision to allow Zanchetta to resign quietly, and then promote him to a new No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to the misconduct of his allies or dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.

Yes, “naked selfies” in a Vatican story. Were these photos sent to others or kept for — oh well, whatever, never mind.

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Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

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Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

The complex story of scandals linked to the life and sins of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick rolls on — with the most interesting material being reporting in various forms of Catholic media. In mainstream newsrooms, most of the coverage continues to focus on clergy abuse with children and teens.

As always, “seminaries” is the key search term to use, if you want to research news about the “system” looming over the scandal as a whole — which includes the sexual abuse of children (pedophilia), teens (ephebophilia) and adults (usually seminarians). The McCarrick story includes all three, but his sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians lasted for decades.

This past weekend, I used our regular “think piece” slot to point readers toward a Commonweal essay — “Double Lives” — by retired Newsweek religion pro Kenneth Woodward.

I normally don’t post “think piece” essays on weekdays, but this time I want to make an exception. The Commonweal team has followed that earlier Woodward essay with a first-person account by Father Boniface Ramsey of New York City, focusing on his efforts to convince church authorities to look into what McCarrick was doing, all those years.

The headline is pretty ho-hum, as in “The Case of Theodore McCarrick: A Failure of Fraternal Correction.” The contents? They’re stunning. It’s hard to know what to quote, since journalists working on this story really need to read it all.

The bottom line: Vatican authorities tend to use the word “rumors” to describe reports about McCarrick. Ramsey says that’s the wrong word. This passage is near the top of his piece:

What the seminarians would talk about among themselves and with some members of the faculty were experiences that they themselves had undergone, or that they had heard others had undergone. It may have been gossip, but it was gossip about real events.

Most people who have been following the case of Theodore McCarrick know by now that he had a beach house on the Jersey Shore at his disposal and that he would regularly request seminarians to visit it with him. This is how it went: he or his secretary would contact the seminary and ask for five specific seminarians, or would just contact the seminarians directly. Understandably, a request from one’s archbishop could not easily be refused.

When McCarrick and the five seminarians arrived at the beach house, there were six men and only five beds.

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As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

So, how good was the news coverage of the very gentle fall of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in terms of the stories published in the two elite newspapers that have been driving this story?

Well, that depends.

It appears that the crucial issue — once again — is whether the most important scandal linked to Wuerl at the the moment is (a) his role in efforts to hide the abuse of children and teens, overwhelmingly male, by clergy, (b) his ties to the career and work of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick or (c) some combination of both, since they are often connected.

If you think the big story is still clergy sexual abuse — as suggested by everything Rome is saying these days — then reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post are just fine. However, if you think that Wuerl could/should be numbered among the cardinals who drew power from McCarrick and then protected him from public scandal, then you will see some very large and interesting holes in these reports.

But first, let’s back up. In addition to waves of coverage of the hellish 900-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sexual abuse, here is the lightning-strike Times headline that really kicked this summer’s Catholic chaos up several notches. I am referring to this: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.”

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, the big word in this specific piece is “seminarians” — as in reports of McCarrick’s ongoing sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians under his authority.

The sex-with-trapped-men angle vanished, for the most part, in most news coverage. Then the Post came out with a story that I took a look at right here: “Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?“ The story’s strong thesis statement said:

The McCarrick case reveals, among other things, the unspoken contradictions between the image of priests as completely celibate and the reality of men struggling at times with their sexuality. Some experts and clerics compared priests’ celibacy vows to those of married couples who become unfaithful. In other words, physical or sexual contact between priests happens. But it’s unclear how frequently it occurs and how often it is nonconsensual.

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Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

This weekend’s think piece is two think pieces in one.

As a bonus, I think I have found a foolproof way to determine how editors of a given publication have answered the crucial question: What is the decades-old Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal all about?

Well, let me qualify that a bit: This journalistic test that I am proposing works really well with the drama surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, since he has been accused of several different kinds of sexual abuse with males of different ages.

The editorial test: Search an article for the word “seminary” or variations on that term.

Let’s start with the Atlantic essay that ran with this headline: “The Sex-Abuse Scandal Is Growing Faster Than the Church Can Contain It.” Here’s a sample of the language:

“Many strands are coming together,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It does seem like we are reaching a watershed moment.” By Thursday, there had been so many new developments that she said she was having a hard time keeping up — and that the leaders at the Vatican probably were, too. “I think they’re scrambling. The news is coming on so many fronts. I think they don’t know quite what to do.” Here is some of what they nevertheless did this week.


The article does mention the controversial public testimony published by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, without really getting into the details other than to its call for Pope Francis to resign.

There is another summary statement later:

Pope Francis on Wednesday summoned bishops from around the world to a first-of-its-kind meeting in Rome in February. The focus will be on protecting minors, and bishops will reportedly receive training in identifying abuse, intervening, and listening to victims.

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