Vatican Sexual Abuse and the High Priests of Hollywood?

The clergy sex abuse scandal was in the press once again as the Vatican issued yet another defense of its insufficient efforts to protect children and adolescents from pedophiles. The International Humanist and Ethical Union sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council citing the Vatican’s failure to live up to its treaty obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and requesting that the Council urge the Commission on the Rights of the Child to ask the Vatican to open all documents related to this matter as well as allow CRC staff to interview church officials with knowledge of these matters.

It cited not only statistics on child sexual abuse but also the physical and emotional abuse children in the custody of the church in work houses and orphanages endured up to the 1970s. And it made clear that the problem was not just child abuse but the massive cover up from country to country and in the Vatican itself.

The Vatican was not amused and issued a rather childish and petulant response which repeated the lame excuses that some church leaders have used since the abuse was painfully detailed by the Boston Globe in 2002. In short, the Vatican claimed it has cleaned its house, though it offered no evidence and proceeded to go on the attack: other religions and public institutions are far bigger abusers of children and no one is calling them to account; the media picks on the church; only a few priests were child abusers, most were ephebophiles, defined as “a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.”

The Vatican statement claimed that “of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between 11 and 17 years old.” Why the Vatican considers this relevant beats me, unless they think blaming it on the gays absolves them of responsibility. And since when are eleven-year-olds adolescents? A nasty person might think the Vatican is offering the Roman Polanski defense: some sex between adults and adolescents is mutual with adolescents being sexually experienced and actually wanting to have sex with a priest or a film director.

It certainly has not learned that some evils are so great that no comparisons are acceptable. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the New York Board of Rabbis warned in the Guardian UK that “comparative tragedy is a dangerous path on which to travel.”

The issue of child abuse in the Roman Catholic church is far from resolved and denial by many, even the most progressive, is still in play. We are, to say the least, deeply embarrassed by the behavior of abusers and the superiors and colleagues who covered up or ignored their abuse. Some religious superiors and the Catholic media divide the survivors into good and bad survivors. The good ones have moved on, the bad ones are still bothering the orders, demanding apologies and public opportunities to tell their stories. These survivors are politically organized to get legislation passed that lifts statutes of limitation and media savvy. Why can’t they move on?

Almost all commentators who are members of religious communities focus on how long ago the abuse happened and how few priests were involved. Few acknowledge the extent to which child sexual and other abuse was a systemic problem. Bishops participated by transferring perpetrators and blocking prosecution, while fellow priests and nuns—especially those who taught in Catholic schools—ignored the physical and emotional abuse students experienced from out-of-control priests, brothers and nuns.

This reality was in the back of my mind when I read a truly foolish and insensitive blog by Tom Reese, the moderately liberal Jesuit former editor of America magazine. Tom always impressed me as a decent guy. Most recently, he serves as that centrist analyst of Catholic events that the media can count on for a moderate and usually obvious sound bite. Writing in On Faith, the Washington Post’s religious blog under the title “Father Polanski Would Go to Jail.” Sounding a bit like conservative film critic Michael Medved, Reese wants to know why the “high priests of the entertainment industry” are immune to criticism for the way in which they have come to the defense of Polanski—giving him various awards including an Academy Award for his anti-Nazi film The Pianist—when a Catholic group such as the Knights of Columbus would be roundly denounced and pilloried?

Reese roundly condemns sexual abuse by priests. But his basic analogy is deeply flawed. He compares the real awards the film industry has given Polanski with a hypothetical award that might be given to a pedophile priest. Why not play it straight and compare the film industry awards with those the Vatican has given to the protectors of pedophiles? Is Reese unaware of such privilege?

The most egregious example is the Mexican priest Father Marcial Maciel who founded the ultra conservative order the Legionaries of Christ. Macial had been reliably accused of sexual abuse of adolescent seminarians since 1993. He was however a frequent visitor to the Vatican and as recently as November, 2004 was granted a special audience with John Paul II where photographers recorded Macial being greeted by the Pope [see image upper left]. Most US Catholics were scandalized by the Pope’s decision to give the disgraced Boston Cardinal Law a plum sinecure in Rome following his forced resignation from the Archdiocese. Law saunters around Rome as a member of the curia and titular cardinal of Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome.

Even more enigmatic than Reese’s implicit denial of the complicity of church officials is his lashing out at the film industry in general. In pursuit of his “double standard” beef that the church is held to a higher standard than the film industry he closes his piece with the following diatribe:

Entertainment is the new religion with sex, violence and money as the new Trinity. The directors and stars are worshipped and quickly forgiven for any infraction so long as the PR agent is skilled as a saintly confessor. Entertainment and not religion is the new opiate of the people.

The only double standard I see is that a Jesuit priest can get away with such crap without being called strident while the survivors of sexual abuse by priests or those who criticize the bishops and Popes who protected them are considered unhinged. I prefer to think Reese was having a bad hair day.