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Catholic Church in Crisis

April 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, the crisis in the Catholic Church. Vatican Radio said today that next week’s summit of American Cardinals is designed to clear up “shadows cast” by the spreading reports of pedophilia among Catholic priests. All 13 American Cardinals have been invited.

They will leave behind a Church coping with these revelations and with evidence that Church leaders protected the priests accused of and in some cases found guilty of the abuse.

Is this a turning point for the Church? To address that and other questions, we turn to: Gustav Niebuhr, a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University; the Reverend Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, he has written books on Catholicism and the history of the papacy; and Raymond Flynn, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997. He is also the former mayor of Boston.

Gus Niebuhr, how unusual is it for the Pope to get involved in this way with what seems to be a last-minute fairly urgent call for American Church leaders to come to Rome?

GUSTAV NIEBUHR: Well, it’s highly unusual. This sort of meeting on such a short notice is virtually unprecedented. And it certainly shows that the Vatican has an idea of the dimensions of the crisis that has erupted here in the United States. I think that what has been crucial here in alerting the Vatican and persuading the Pope and the people around him to call this meeting has been the outrage of laypeople, particularly in the archdiocese of Boston. It’s often said accurately that the Catholic Church isn’t a democracy, but on the other hand, it’s not entirely the hierarchy. That goes against both the practical state of the Church and also against the Church’s own theology, which holds that the Church is the whole people of God and not just its senior members.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Flynn, you were at the Vatican for a while. You were there during your stewardship and saw at least one of these kinds of meetings called. How unusual does it seem to you?

RAYMOND FLYNN: It’s rare, but Gus is right. It’s not exactly unprecedented. But this is a, I think a sign from John Paul II himself that he is not satisfied with what has been going on in the Church in the United States, and he is stepping in, taking full control hopefully — putting everybody on notice that he wants a policy that is general in scope across the United States, if not across the world, that protects young, innocent children.

So what happened in Boston and other areas, molesting of young people at the hands of sexually abusive priests, never happens again. I would predict — I would hope, I would pray — that the Pope’s role in this will be the first important signal, first important message that there’s going to be a policy that will be a no-tolerance policy, and never again will this happen to any innocent young person. It will be treated not just as a sin, as a sickness, but also a crime.

GWEN IFILL: Father McBrien, does the Pope’s role constitute a turning point in this, I guess, scandal?

REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: I wouldn’t characterize it as a turning point. It’s a positive development. I surely would want to say that, and I would agree with what Raymond Flynn and Gus Niebuhr have said about that, but one has to look realistically at the composition of the delegation, both the American delegation and the Vatican delegation.

It is almost monochromatic in its approach to issues in the Church, theological, pastoral. It’s hard to predict that out of this group, this particular group, there will come a great deal of creative energy, of openness to adopt new approaches to some systemic and institutional problems and crises in the Church. I’m always prepared to see the work of the Holy Spirit break through — what a political analyst might say could never happen.

But even the Vatican representatives recently named Cardinal Rotzinger, Cardinal Ray, Cardinal Castillon Hoyes, they come from the far right of the Vatican curial spectrum. And most of the Cardinals are also on that spectrum, Cardinal Mahoney being a major exception, Bishop Skillstad, the vice president of the conference also being an exception, but it will be interesting to see just how this particular group can break through some traditional lines of thinking and really look at this crisis in its broader dimensions, and with fresh thinking.

GWEN IFILL: Gus Niebuhr, it was Bishop Skillstad and Bishop Gregory, from the U.S. Council of Bishops, who actually were in Rome last week, and perhaps prevailed on the Pope to have a meeting like this, what can realistically be expected of a meeting like this, in a Church, which takes so long to get things done as the Catholic Church?

GUSTAV NIEBUHR: Well, I think one of the things that will certainly bear watching is the Bishops’ meeting, which is to take place in June. At that point, the question of perhaps adopting a uniform policy governing the reporting of child sexual abuse and how to deal with accused offenders throughout the diocese of the United States, something more or less binding, could be adopted. One thing that I think we have to realize, too–

GWEN IFILL: Could I just ask you, binding in what way?

GUSTAV NIEBUHR: Well, I think in terms of it being officially required, as much as they can be. Now, of course, each Bishop runs his own diocese, but there could be a much more definite statement about what needs to be done, because if there isn’t, then the momentum will lie with prosecuting attorneys rather than with the Bishops themselves. One thing I just want to stress here, too, is I think the Bishops are certainly aware of the urgency of the situation not just in terms of dealing with the grief of laypeople and certainly of victims, but also they’re aware that the moral credibility of the Bishops themselves is at stake in this. And as long as it is, as long as the story in the American Church is of this crisis that prevents the Bishops from speaking to domestic and foreign policy issues in the United States, it really ties up the Church in a knot and removes it as a public player from the American scene.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Flynn, we were referring to the American Church. Until today, in fact, until yesterday when we began hearing about this meeting and the Pope’s involvement, the signals from the Vatican from Rome had been very much that this was an American problem, this was a U.S. problem, and it would have to be fixed here. What do you think changed?

RAYMOND FLYNN: Well, it certainly is not just an American problem. It’s not even a new problem. This problem has been going on in the Catholic Church for a long period of time. But as Gus Niebuhr says, and Father McBrien as well, the Church has, Bishops have local autonomy in many respects. They kind of run their own shop in the various diocese or the archdiocese. I think the Holy Father has recognized the fact that this doesn’t work.

It’s too embarrassing for the Church, too many innocent victims, too many young people have been hurt, and many, there are a lot of victims here, a lot of good priests who do a lot of good work. They’re victims as well because of their reputation, just the image of the Catholic Church. Holy Father says, “Look, this is the time to step in. It’s going to be a policy.” I believe this will happen. This type of situation is long overdue.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Flynn, has the Church fundamentally mishandled this in not stepping in to punish Cardinals or Archbishops who assisted or evidence exists that they helped to cover up some of the actions of these priests?

RAYMOND FLYNN: Well, see, I don’t really believe– and I’ve studied this and looked at this carefully, and I might be wrong– but I don’t really believe that Cardinal Law in Boston did anything intentionally to put children, innocent children, in harm’s way. But yes, in fact, you’re right. A serious error of judgment was made. He originally probably relied on a lot of erroneous medical information, and later on, he probably delegated a lot of this assignment to other people in the Chancery — big mistakes. He has to take full responsibility for it. And I think therein lies the crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Father McBrien, is the hierarchical nature of the Church that Ambassador Flynn describes, has that fed this problem in your opinion?

REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: No, it’s not the hierarchical nature of the Church. It’s the kinds of men appointed to fill those hierarchical posts. When this Pope’s Pontificate ends, by death or resignation, we’re going to be doing the plus and minuses, doing an overall evaluation of this very long and very dominant Pontificate. There are many positive things to be said about Pope John Paul II.

One of the highest negatives that will be identified will be the kind of men that he has appointed to the hierarchy. That’s the problem. It’s not the structure. It’s the personnel. There has been too much of an ideological test that has been placed on these appointments. When you go back to the second Vatican Council, which was the great reforming Council of the Catholic Church in the early 60s, the great reforming Bishops were appointed by Pope Pius XII, who was the Pope in my childhood. He was a very conservative Pope, but he always gave the other side some of the major appointments.

In this Pontificate, that almost never happens. And so the kind of men who have been appointed to the hierarchy are not people who are generally out ahead of the curve. They are people who look up waiting for marching orders, as in this case by the way. They didn’t put in a national policy on their own. They have to wait for the Vatican to press them to do it.

GWEN IFILL: In that case, Father McBrien, are the people who are going to Rome for the meeting with the Pope, these Cardinals, are they the men to fix the problem? And if not they, who?

REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: Well, as I said, this may sound pious — I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to break through what otherwise is a very, very thick wall of obstacle. They’re not really the best men to do it because they happen to think too much alike. And they’re too much the products of this regime. They’re not Vatican II types. They’re more restorationists — that is, as the Pope seems to do, they hark back to the good old days when the Church, when the Pope was really in charge, the Bishops were his loyal subordinates and priests and theologians and lay people kept their place. That day is over, and the Second Vatican council announced it being over.

GWEN IFILL: Gus Niebuhr, let’s talk about the structure of the Church. Are these the men to fix the problem?

GUSTAV NIEBUHR: Well, if they don’t, who will? I think one thing they have to, with all due respect to Father McBrien, I believe they have to be aware of the laypeople within the Church, too, and that if they do not respond in some way to the crisis now, then they do risk losing all credibility. And I think that they must realize this in some way. When is the last time, and I really can’t answer this question, I’m just wondering, that a large aroused group of outraged Catholics demanded the resignations of at least one Cardinal or Archbishop? This may well grow around the country. I think, one thing I would just like to add about the American Catholic Church is that it really is an extremely important component of this international organization, the Catholic Church.

I’m sure Rome must be aware of this. It is the single largest group of educated, affluent, and committed Catholics certainly on a lay basis anywhere in the world, and it’s a truly ethnically diverse population, which should be very dear to Pope John Paul II’s heart. You just don’t want to risk alienating large numbers of people in such a very important population.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Flynn, do there have to be resignations in order to get to the bottom of this? You just heard what Gus Niebuhr said about the calls from the laity in Boston for the resignation of your Cardinal, Cardinal law.

RAYMOND FLYNN: It’s a very painful period of time, Gwen, and I think people are oblivious to the situation in terms of the “what to do.” They want to have faith in the teaching of Jesus Christ and their Church and have that confidence, so there’s no crisis of faith. There is, in fact, however, a crisis in confidence. And I think once the Holy Father orders the implementation of a policy that will protect innocent young minors, I think that will be a step in the right direction. But Gwen, to use a baseball analogy — the Red Sox beat the Yankees yesterday by the way — to use a baseball analogy, this is the first inning. This kind of debate is going to take place. The Church is at a crossroads, and you’re going to see a lot of contentious discussion and debate going on in the Catholic Church and within the laity.

GWEN IFILL: In the long term, does that debate start in Rome or does it end in Rome?

RAYMOND FLYNN: No. I think in this particular case, the Catholic laity have been empowered and mobilized as they never have before, and I think they feel that finally they’re going to be given a seat at the table. The Church learned the hard way unfortunately, but there’s a new set of rules that are starting to be developed.

GWEN IFILL: And, Father McBrien, a final word on that same question. Does the long-term solution have to come from Rome or go to Rome?

REV. RICHARD McBRIEN: The longest-term solution does have to come from Rome because there are certain systemic and institutional changes that have to be made in the way the Catholic Church operates that can’t be decided upon by local hierarchy. They can put pressure, they can give advice, they can give input, but ultimately, it’s a decision of a Pope. I don’t expect major changes under this Pope, whose Pontificate is now in its twilight. If changes are to come of a more systemic, long-term nature, they will come in the Pontificate of his successor.

GWEN IFILL: Father McBrien, Gus Niebuhr, and Ray Flynn, thank you all very much.