The Vatican’s unprecedented summit with U.S. cardinals should lead to a worldwide crackdown on child abuse within the priesthood, activists and editorial writers in several nations wracked by similar scandals said Thursday.
“This was a landmark occasion, which … has broken through the atmosphere of silence and denial hitherto marking the Vatican’s approach to this issue,” declared the Irish Times, the paper of record in this predominantly Catholic nation.
“Dirty linen washed in public,” read a headline in the La Stampa newspaper in Rome, after Pope John Paul II’s two-day meeting with U.S. cardinals produced a commitment to expel serial abusers from the priesthood.
The rival Corriere della Sera newspaper credited the U.S. media’s “daily hammering” for forcing the pope and his visitors to behave with uncharacteristic openness. “Something new is happening at the Vatican: facing a scandalous reality head on … and speaking publicly about it,” it said.
From Poland to the Philippines, church officials and Catholic faithful were weighing the U.S. cardinals’ words versus the policies on sexual abuse being adopted by their own national hierarchies. Some suggested the church’s response looked like too little, too late.
“The Catholic Church does not act unless the problem is already in great proportions,” said the Rev. Robert Reyes, a parish priest in the Philippines, where another priest has been jailed on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl. “We don’t realize the defect until it is too big to solve.”
In Ireland, where more than two dozen priests have been convicted of molestation and a bishop resigned for failing to prevent abuse, a victims group said the Vatican’s instructions to the U.S. hierarchy didn’t go nearly far enough.
“At the end of the day, the pope is saying priests can stay priests until they’re proved to have abused a string of innocent children. The safety of children is still taking a back seat to the good standing of a priest,” said John Kelly, who leads the 800-strong group called Irish Survivors of Child Abuse.
In Britain, an officially Protestant nation where Catholics form a significant minority, the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper warned that some of the church’s sternest critics had an anti-Catholic agenda.
“A minority wishes to destroy the church and will use pedophilia as a handy weapon to do so,” said the Telegraph, Britain’s top-circulation broadsheet. It argued that calls for the church to soften its policy of priestly celibacy represented a “gross fallacy.”
“A man does not become a pedophile for want of a wife,” the paper said. “It is common ground among psychologists that a typical offender against children is not a celibate clergyman but a married man.”
In Austria, too, church officials dismissed any connection between the policy of mandatory celibacy and the reality of deviant sexual behavior among a minority of priests.
“It must be mentioned that many cases of child abuse occur in families. There, the celibacy duty plays no role at all,” said Bishop Egon Kapellari of the diocese of Styria in southern Austria.
But the Irish Times questioned whether the church’s policies on the priesthood could withstand a future wave of scandals. It noted that ordinations had already fallen to unacceptable levels.
“The Vatican has clearly set its face against any move to change celibacy rules or to open up the question of women priests,” the Irish Times said. “In the longer term it is likely to find these issues cannot he held at bay and may come to be seen as the most rational way to renew the church.”
In San Juan, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico, told a news conference that anyone who has been sexually abused by clergy or church workers should go directly to the police.
“It’s better that complainants go straight to civil authorities because it creates an impression of impartiality in the church,” Nieves said.
“For years psychiatrists thought that pedophilia — sexual abuse of minors — could be cured. Now it is considered a very serious pathology that is incurable,” he said.
But the archbishop refused to comment on an investigation of sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese, which he announced last week, or on at least six other cases in Puerto Rican dioceses under the jurisdiction of other bishops.