Benedict XVI has earned headlines and goodwill on this, his first visit as pope to the United States, by speaking out repeatedly about his anguish over the clergy sexual abuse scandal and yesterday meeting with a small group of abuse victims. The pope on Wednesday also told the American bishops at a meeting that some of them had “badly mishandled” some abuse cases–the first public suggestion from the pope or the Vatican the the bishops, who most Catholics continue to blame for the scope of the crisis, bore a measure of responsibility.
But Benedict’s successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s main defender of church orthodoxy, today said the pontiff’s words do not implicate the bishops in wrongdoing and that no bishops will face sanctions.
At a lunch meeting with journalists sponsored by Time magazine, Cardinal William Levada, the former San Francisco archbishop who Joseph Ratzinger named to replace himself at the CDF when Ratzinger was elected pope, bristled at a suggestion that some bishops had “aided and abetted” priest-abusers by not acting to remove them.
“I don’t believe that,” Levada said. “I know bishops who have said to me, if I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” But he said the bishops who moved abusers around to other parishes or did not remove them from ministry were acting on bad advice from experts and psychiatrists.
“So it [the scandal] has been a learning experience for bishops,” the cardinal said.
“I personally do not accept that there has been a broad base of bishops guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles…If I thought there were, I would certainly want to talk to them about that.”
On other matters…
…Cardinal Levada said that he had no input on the pope’s addresses or preparation for this visit, even though Levada is the highest-ranking American ever to work in Rome. “I have my own little work to do all the time,” Levada said drolly.
Asked about the question of giving communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, Levada largely demurred. But he did seem to side against a handful of hard-liners in the U.S. hierarchy who have staked out an independent position on the practice, or at least against the current patchwork of positions. “My stand is that I don’t think our Catholic population is served by a territorial morality.” He said he hoped that when the election season ends there could be a “more serene and effective discussion” about church teaching and what ought to be done in this regard.
Returning to the issue of the scandal, Levada was asked if, in light of the pope’s visibility on the abuse crisis, the Vatican foresaw any subsequent action or envisioned a future course for policies or programs. “That’s a good question that I really hadn’t thought of,” Levada said. He said the pope’s words and actions were meant to be “exemplary,” in the sense of setting a pastoral example for others to follow. He said he hoped victims’ stories would now “be given more prominence.”
Levada later told a few reporters that the CDF was begininning to work through the backlog of laicization cases that had once built up to more than 700, according to reports. He did not say how many remained to be adjudicated. He also seemed to indicate that the CDF was considering ways to raise the church’s canonical statute of limitations on reporting sexual abuse. He noted that it often took many years before victims felt they could come forward and report such abuse.
I also asked the cardinal if he could clarify remarks that the pope made on the plane that distinguished between pedophilia and homosexuality–a linkage many have tried to make. “I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality but pedophilia, which is another thing. We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry,” Benedict said.
Yet his statements raised questions about what the pope meant (there was no opportunity for follow-up) and whether his words signaled a re-thinking of the Vatican statement in 2006 that seemed to bar gay men from the seminary.
Levada said he would not interpret the remarks as any modification of the seminary policy. But he said he wasn’t sure what else the pope’s words indicated. “I don’t know what to make of that myself,” Levada said. He said he believes Benedict wanted to focus on “the grave problem of pedophilia”–defined as the abuse of a pre-pubescent child by an adult–rather than what Levada calls “ephebephilia,” or “homosexual acting out with adolescent boys.”
Levada called ephebephilia a clinical term, but it is not listed in the DSM and mention of it raises many red flags among experts and within the gay community. Victims advocates also dislike the term, preferring to denote all sexual activity by an adult on a minor as child abuse, which is the criminal and civil law definition.
In short, there still seems to be little clarity. Many believe the pope was trying to make a distinction in order to shield homosexuals from efforts to identify gays with pedophiles. That seems like an obvious–and laudable–goal. But the standing of gay men vis-a-vis holy orders is still a bit uncertain, and seems likely to remain the ecclesiastical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
On a lighter note, Levada told a good story about Benedict’s White House welcome on Wednesday. As the 15 or so churchmen in the papal entourage lined up to meet President Bush, Benedict brightened when Cardinal Levada, an American, stepped up. Benedict said, “Oh, Mr. President, this is my successor.” Benedict meant his successor at the CDF. But Levada saw Bush raise his eyebrows as if wondering whether Benedict had put the fix in for the Yank. “Oh my God, he’s not thinking I’m the heir apparent!” Levada said.