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Meeting at the Vatican

April 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For analysis of today’s meeting at the Vatican, we turn to two Catholic theologians. George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. He is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington research organization; and Mary Hunt, who heads the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Rituals.



MARY HUNT: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Read between the lines for us on Pope John Paul’s statements today.

What did he say and what didn’t he say?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think what he said, Gwen, was that this entire problem of sexual abuse — which includes pedophilia, the homosexual abuse of teen-aged boys and young men, and the age-old problem of priests misbehaving with women — has to be addressed comprehensively and at its roots.

This is a problem that has emerged in a particularly acute form between the late 1960s and the late 1980s at a time of dissent on discipline, breakdown of structures in the Church and I think the Pope wants that addressed comprehensively.

Secondly, I think what he said immediately after that — after he had said that there is no place in the priesthood for those who abuse others — he said that the solution to this is going to be for the Church to become more Catholic rather than less Catholic.

For all of the people of the Church, Bishops, priests and laity, to live the fullness of Catholic faith. This is a problem of failure of discipleship at the bottom. I think the Pope is calling everyone to live a more integrally connected, thoroughly Catholic life.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Hunt, what did he say and what didn’t he say?

MARY HUNT: Well, I think what you have going on here, Gwen, is what I’d call an ecclesial Enron. I think you have a very serious situation for which pedophilia is only the tip of the iceberg.

I think that what the Pope did not address was criminal activity not only in the pedophilia, which of course it is, but in the covering up and perhaps facilitating the possibility of that activity taking place across state lines, perhaps even in other countries.

I think what hasn’t person addressed as yet and just the fact that it’s an all men and all cardinals meeting in Rome is evidence of this — is that the Church really now is at a point of having to take seriously the kinds of reforms that were mentioned in the Second Vatican Council and that many progressive Catholics not only here but around the world have been living out on our own.

So to look at structural reform, to make the Church a more democratic participatory organization, certainly hasn’t been reflected even in the constitution of the meeting much less in the discussions so far.

But this isn’t a two-day meeting problem. This is a long-term structural change necessary in a huge powerful institution that now has really as much an economic problem on its hands as it does a sexual problem.

GWEN IFILL: Since you both come at this from different points of view, let me just give you some of the lines from the Pope’s statements today and ask you your take on it.

For instance it seemed that he addressed this to the cardinals and the bishops the leadership of the Church. He said the way in which the Church leaders are perceived to have acted in this manner– he talked about the perception. Do you think that was the Pope’s signaling that it was only perception or is that over interpretation?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think that’s over interpretation. Everyone is clear that there has been serious mishandling of this crisis of sexual abuse in all of its dimensions.

Everyone is clear that there must be personnel policies put into place, uniformly on a national level, to prevent this kind of meltdown in the future. I think everyone is clear that seminary reform has to continue, that men have to be more adequately prepared to lead chaste, celibate lives. I think everyone is clear that this very difficult but urgent issue of homosexuality in the clergy and the inability of apparently a significant number of homosexual clergy to lead chaste lives has to be seriously addressed.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Hunt, the Pope… first, you can respond to that.

MARY HUNT: I’m not going to touch the homosexual question first.

I’ll go to yours because you’re quite correct in looking at the word “perception” in that much of what has gone on is not just perception but reality, and that the Church has worked for so long to keep secrets and set up a system without checks and balances that perception has been all.

And I think the smoke and mirrors are over and people are now asking for accountability.

I think the homosexuality question is quite extraneous in the sense that the issue at hand is criminal behavior namely pedophilia, the sexual orientation of those engaged in that behavior is in my view not relevant.

GWEN IFILL: To rank-and-file priests the Pope said there is no place in religious life for those who would harm the young. That’s been interpreted widely as being a very strong statement. Is that the way you saw it?

MARY HUNT: I think that’s right. I think it is a strong statement. I think we will see how strong it is if in fact it is backed up by the traditional Catholic approach to penance, namely saying that there has been sin involved, assuming that there is asking for forgiveness and then some serious show of reparations for those survivor victims of these terrible crimes and then real serious purpose of amendment not to do this again, and that would mean structural changes in the Church. But we’ll see if it – we’ll see how strong it is. I hope especially for the victim survivors that it is a very strong statement.

GWEN IFILL: Did that suggest zero tolerance to you?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think what it suggests, Gwen, is that there are certain acts that by their very nature disqualify a man from further functioning in the ministry.

I think that’s what the Holy Father is saying. That’s a very old notion in the Catholic Church, goes back centuries. Some things simply put you off the board and the Church is going to have to come to grips with that.

I don’t think anyone is trying to do some sort of finesse on this here. I was in Rome for the past three weeks. During that period, I sensed very powerfully that what I called the “urgency gap” between the Church in the United States and the authorities of the Church in Rome had narrowed dramatically during that period. I think everyone is focused on this now in a serious way.

And that’s a good sign for the kind of reforms that are necessary in the future.

GWEN IFILL: Being focused in a serious way, does that mean that the zero tolerance for a priest who commits the kind of act for which nothing should be forgiven applies as well to the leaders who appear to cover that up?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I think we’re talking about certainly with pedophilia — a pedophiliac priest is a contradiction in terms. A man who has committed that sort of crime, that sort of gross, revolting sin, has no place in the ministry.

I think Cardinal George makes an interesting point. What happens if there’s a one-time fall from grace 25 years ago and there’s no pattern of abuse since then? That needs to be looked at very seriously.

And, bishops who have been irresponsible in handling this, bishops who have been irresponsible in handling this — for whatever reasons — if the bottom line is that abusers have been allowed to continue in the ministry, then I think some serious address has to be made to whether that man has lost his capacity to lead in the future.

MARY HUNT: I think this has to be seen in two ways, Gwen. One is that zero tolerance is really for the law to decide. This is a criminal activity and it is really up to the law to decide that pedophilia is in fact in every instance criminal behavior. So that’s really not up to the Pope.

The question at hand I think is a question of professional ethics. That is, are the sheep off limits to the shepherd? Can a doctor engage in this kind of activity with her patient? Can a lawyer do the same with her client? And the fact is that in many other disciplines beginning with social work and among therapists and counselors there are codes of professional ethics.

I think this is what is lacking in not only the Roman Catholic situation but in many other religious institutions that have had the same problem. Those institutions with the help of places like the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle have set in place policies. And they are enforceable policies that are understood by everyone within that tradition. And that’s what we need.

GWEN IFILL: If the cardinals and bishops don’t enforce these policies, if they come up with policies at their June meeting or at the end of this meeting, does that mean that heads should roll, does that mean that these people should no longer be in these positions?

GEORGE WEIGEL: It seems to me that if there are clear personnel policies in place and then there is another pattern of failing to enforce those, then, yes, then, yes, it seems to me that a man who fails to do that has failed fundamentally in his responsibility as a shepherd, as a pastor of Church, and as a leader of the Catholic people.

MARY HUNT: But I think the problem is much deeper than that. I think it’s much deep he were than a two-day meeting or even the meeting in June.

I think the problem is that in order to have the kind of Church where there is accountability, checks and balances, participation in democracy, the Roman Catholic Church needs to make substantive structural changes.

Happily this meeting is not the only meeting going on. This weekend the Catholic Organizations for Renewal will meet here in Washington. Next weekend, the Women Church convergence will meet in Florida. There are a lot of groups of Catholics so to….

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to follow up on what you said — what do you mean when you say substantial structural change.

MARY HUNT: I mean there would not be the kind of clerical system where one who was ordained was the only… that those who are ordained are the only ones with decision-making power, with jurisdiction, who can engage in sacramental ministry, but in much more participatory and democratic ministry like in the Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches, and these structures work very well in terms of their accountability.

They are not without their problems of this sort but they certainly are with structures of more accountability so this sort of thing won’t happen again.

GWEN IFILL: Is that likely to be – excuse me for interrupting you -

MARY HUNT: Surely.

GWEN IFILL: Is that likely to be something that comes out of a meeting like this?

GEORGE WEIGEL: I don’t think so, Gwen. As I said a moment ago, the resolution of this crisis is going to be for the Catholic Church to become more Catholic, not more Lutheran, not more Anglican, not more Presbyterian, not more secular. It’s going to be for the people of the Church– bishops, priests and people– to live the Church’s sexual ethic, which is an affirmation of sexuality, more fully. We don’t find a way out of this by imitating others.

We find a way out of this by being true to the fullness of Catholic faith, which is what the Pope was calling everyone to today.

GWEN IFILL: Finally back to the Pope’s words, he said he expressed his profound sense of solidarity and concern with the victims of abuse.

Should there have been a more explicit papal apology?

GEORGE WEIGEL: This Pope has been talking about the reform of the priesthood for 23 years.

The fact that we’re just paying attention to that now is more of a function of our news cycle than of the reality of the situation. No one who knows this man cannot believe but that he is agonized by these problems, by the abuse of a vocation, which he himself holds up to a noble standard.

MARY HUNT: It’s a start but much, much more needs to be said and done and we will watch this very carefully in hopes that victim survivors will in fact get their due which is not only justice in their instances but structural changes to prevent this from ever happening again.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Hunt, George Weigel, thank you very much.


MARY HUNT: Thank you, Gwen.