Vatican, ‘Cool Pope’ Blast UN Link Between Sexual Abuse Scandal and Church Attitudes on Gays, Contraception, Abortion

What’s remarkable about the profile of Pope Francis in the current issue of Rolling Stone isn’t its content—after all, it largely consists of information that’s been reported elsewhere—it’s that it exists at all. In Rolling Stone. Fascination with “Cool Pope Francis”—as Gawker dubbed him—is running so high that even a magazine usually devoted to guitar gods and pop princesses devoted nearly 8,000 words to the pontiff. 

While that article attempts to determine just how much of an agent for change Francis might actually be, the big question, as commentators like Mary Hunt here on RD have asked in one form or another, is how much headway he can make—or wants to make—on reforming church doctrine on the role of women, contraception and LGBT issues. 

But as the report released today by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child slamming the Vatican for its handling of clergy sex abuse illustrates, no matter how well-intentioned (or Cool) Francis may be, the problem is that the Church still doesn’t recognize what the real problem is.

The report acknowledges some progress on abuse made under Francis, notably the announcement of an independent commission, but also says: “The Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

It called for the Vatican to open its files for public review, institute mandatory reporting to law enforcement authorities, and to tackle the festering problem of the higher-ups who played a pedophilia shell game by moving predator priests from parish to parish. These reforms have been widely endorsed inside and outside the church, although advocates for victims of abuse accuse the church of dragging its heels.

But what unleashed an apoplectic response from the hierarchy was the fact that the UN committee had the temerity to recommend reforms related not only to the prevention of child sexual abuse, but, as is its purview, to the overall well-being of children.

It said the Church’s views on homosexuality stigmatized gay people and children from same-sex families. It also called for the Church to “review its position on abortion which places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls,” and to recognize that its ban on contraceptive use and counseling had negative health consequences for adolescents in the form of unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.  

The Vatican wasted no time in painting the recommendations as a liberal attempt to leverage the sex abuse scandal to force changes in church doctrine, asserting that issues like homosexuality and abortion were “nonnegotiable.” Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the US Catholic bishops, said, “Those are culture war issues. Sex abuse isn’t a culture war issue—it’s a sin and a crime.”

Even Vatican watcher John Allen, writing from his new perch at the Boston Globe, said the report could create a backlash in favor of the Vatican by “blurring the cause of child protection with the culture wars over sexual mores.”

But the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandal was precisely to claim that sex abuse was a culture war issue. Its own report sought to blame the sexual revolution, chalking it up to sexual licentiousness run amok rather than criminal activity on the part of the abusers and those who shielded them. The real question is whether Cool Pope Francis can recognize that it’s the Vatican’s schizophrenic attitude about sex that needs reform as much as the curia or the Vatican Bank.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.

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