The Pope Is Heading for a Public Policy Clash for Which He Appears Unprepared
It is highly unlikely that Vatican officials adequately have prepared Pope Benedict XVI this week for the American mood on clergy abuse. Those inside the Vatican have been quoted recently as saying the American response was “exaggerated” and the Pope might not even address the child sex abuse issues. When objections were raised, though, the official response became that he would advocate “healing and reconciliation.” Good luck.
Those advising the Pope seem to have grievously underestimated the energy of the grassroots movement that has grown with astonishing speed since the Boston Globe broke the story of institutional cover up of child abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.
Who do you think is the most active group in the United States opposing legislation to reform the laws of child sex abuse? The answer is: the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition to reform of the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse is one of the top priorities for Catholic Conferences (the lobbyists for the bishops in each state) around the country.
This is a key legislative arena for the hierarchy of the American Roman Catholic Church. For example, during hearings in Wisconsin, Archbishop Timothy Dolan himself not only appeared before a Senate committee to testify against the legislation but stayed for much of the hearing. (I testified in favor and advocate such legislation in my new book, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008)).
The Pope is going to be hearing, no doubt, from a variety of organizations that have been mobilized since Boston broke. Three organizations have become very sophisticated responders to clergy abuse issues – SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests); VOTF (Voice of the Faithful, a group dedicated to reform of the church in light of the clergy abuse crisis); and bishopaccountability.org (a website that has amassed a jaw-dropping amount of information about child predators and the cover up). At the same time, a national organization, NAPSAC (National Association to Prevent the Sexual Abuse of Children) has been formed for the purpose of supporting legislation to end statutes of limitations for child sex abuse and educating professionals about child sex abuse dealing with children.
But the central players in the movement are not the only ones pointing to the elephant in the Pope’s interview room: journalist Christopher Hitchens commented on Friday on washingtonpost.com that “If Ratzinger is not asked at every stop he makes, and in level yet firm tones, why he and the Vatican continue to shelter Cardinal Law, our profession will have shamed and disgraced itself . . . . What we need to hear is his reason for giving sinecure and asylum to the man who organized and excused the rape and torture of tens of thousands of American children.”
That is a truly remarkable statement. Not so long ago, when the Boston cover-up broke, there were major newspapers that hesitated to cover the story in any detail because they did not want to give offense to the Church. Now we have a reporter saying that the Pope himself must be questioned aggressively about his handling of clergy abuse. That should give every survivor in the United States hope as it gives the Pope pause.