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Scandals Place Catholic Church Between Ancient Traditions, Modern Faith Crisis

April 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of a weeklong series of reports from the Vatican, Margaret Warner reports on the impact of the child sex abuse scandals on the faithful in Rome and on Pope Benedict XVI and his advisers.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Margaret Warner wraps up a week of reporting from Rome, as the European abuse scandal engulfs the Vatican.

MARGARET WARNER: They call Rome the Eternal City, awash in grand monuments and the artistic remains of civilizations that have spanned the millennia, in its heart, one of the most enduring, the seat of the self- proclaimed eternal church of Roman Catholicism, the Vatican.

But now, hit with a new wave of allegations of priestly sexual abuse of the young, the ancient church and its pope find themselves caught in a very modern crisis.

That didn’t keep thousands from filling Saint Peter’s Square this past Sunday to hear Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly blessing from his window high above the piazza. He called on priests to model themselves on Jesus, the good shepherd, who safeguards his flock and defends it from evil.

Sister Lucien Rodrigues of Brazil thinks Pope Benedict is doing just that.

SISTER LUCIEN RODRIGUES, Brazil (through translator): He’s confronting the situation with a lot of humility, and this is how the church should always be.

MARGARET WARNER: But the more common view came from Catholic-raised Liz McKnight of London.

LIZ MCKNIGHT, Raised Catholic: I think the church, as a whole, has been very, very defensive about the whole thing. And I think they are now beginning to open up. And I think that’s what they should do.

MARCO POLITI, Vatican analyst: Well, certainly, it is the worst crisis in the last 200 years. The Vatican and the bishops generally have built a wall of silence about these misdeeds.

MARGARET WARNER: Vatican analyst and papal biographer Marco Politi says the scrutiny from secular press and public is a profound culture shock for the Holy See.

MARCO POLITI: For centuries, the Vatican has been accustomed to be a power, a state power, which had to not answer to anybody, which had his own justice. And the own justice was something different and completely independent from the state courts. So, this time, it happens that priests or bishops are called into the state courts, and they have to respond.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s where Don Ruggero Conti found himself Tuesday, at this Rome courthouse standing trial on charges of molesting seven boys while he was a parish priest.

Conti said the charges were a smear, and not just of him.

REV. RUGGERO CONTI, Catholic Church (through translator): I am a priest. The infamies of which I am accused accumulate other hatred, not only on myself, but it bounces off immediately, like a stone on the water, to hit the church and hurt the Holy Father.

MARGARET WARNER: Until his police arrest in 2008, the well-connected Conti served at this neighborhood church and school just north of Rome. Victims’ lawyers say he remained in his job long after his local bishop and the Vatican prosecutor were apprised of the accusations against him.

ROBERTO MIRABILE, director, La Caramella Buona (through translator): The priest is supposed to cure your soul, not wound it or kill it.

MARGARET WARNER: Attorney Roberto Mirabile runs La Caramella Buona, an Italian anti-pedophilia group representing two of the young men.

ROBERTO MIRABILE (through translator): This is just the tip of the iceberg. All that is underneath will come out. It’s far more serious and widespread. And, in the future, we will know more than today.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s what unfolded elsewhere in Europe eight years after the U.S. Catholic Church abuse scandal. Last fall’s news of a grotesque 15,000 cases in Ireland triggered an avalanche of fresh allegations from country after country on the continent. Europe’s shame has hit this city, and its many Vatican-connected institutions hard.

MONSIGNOR RODERICK STRANGE, rector, Pontifical Beda College: It’s been a very difficult and painful time.

MARGARET WARNER: Monsignor Roderick Strange runs Pontifical Beda College, which trains older men for the priesthood.

MONSIGNOR RODERICK STRANGE: Having to talk about this issue, even my circumstances, you can feel, as it were, sucked into a swamp. I mean, we are all tarnished by this.

MARGARET WARNER: On the surface, life at Beda appears to follow its usual pattern. But new admittees are much more rigorously screened. Strange offers insight into the attitudes that used to prevail among bishops accused of protecting priests over children.

MONSIGNOR RODERICK STRANGE: Perhaps he was told, yes, this man has done wrong, but we all commit sins, and he says he’s really sorry, and so — and it is safe to send him back to work.

MARGARET WARNER: But he is critical of the Vatican’s handling of the issue today.

MONSIGNOR RODERICK STRANGE: It would have been better had — if the Vatican had, so to speak, got ahead of the game more. And because the whole issue is so emotional, the important thing is to say you’re sorry and to go on saying you’re sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: Instead, it’s been a mixed message from the Holy See. At Easter Sunday mass, the dean of the College of Cardinals defiantly defended the pope against what he dismissed as petty gossip.

Yet, just two weeks later, in Malta, the pontiff met with abuse victims off-camera and, reportedly, with tears in his eyes, assured them of church action.

It was here just last week that Pope Benedict spoke publicly of his meeting and promise to the abuse victims in Malta. Yet, at this Wednesday’s audience in Saint Peter’s Square, after a week in which three prominent bishops resigned in the scandal, he chose instead to highlight two 19th century priests who sought to care for the suffering of young people, not cause it. His choice reflected the Vatican’s often painful quest for how to best deal with this crisis.

PIA DE SOLENNI, theologian: It’s a communications nightmare. I think Enron was more manageable than — than what’s happening now with the church.

MARGARET WARNER: Pia de Solenni, an American theologian and cultural analyst, was in Rome to speak at a conference of Catholic communications officers.

PIA DE SOLENNI: I think the church has kind of — has become defensive and is in fact thwarting any communications efforts that it has.

MARGARET WARNER: The pope’s defenders in this group, including Father John Wauck, insist the pontiff has dealt forcefully with clergy abuse, especially in his March letter to the Irish faithful.

FATHER JOHN WAUCK, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross: And he’s handled that very seriously, called all the Irish bishops to — to Rome. He wrote a letter. This was — you know, and he’s called for a visitation, and he’s accepted resignations.

MARGARET WARNER: But de Solenni says it’s not enough to do that once in a letter.

PIA DE SOLENNI: The pope is not going to do a press conference. But I think we need to, again, continue to hear more about what he’s done and what he’s doing.

REV. FEDERICO LOMBARDI, Vatican spokesman: There are too many people that think that they have to teach to the pope what he has to do. I think it is better also to listen to him.

MARGARET WARNER: Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman at the eye of the Vatican’s communications storm, argues, the pope’s actions should speak more loudly than words.

REV. FEDERICO LOMBARDI: If the pope say — says or does something, it is not to do — to do or to be 100 times, but has a model value, or example value.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Lombardi admits, it’s an uphill battle to restore confidence in the church’s believability now.

REV. FEDERICO LOMBARDI: For the church, is very hard. This was a wound for the credibility. This is clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if the Vatican learns to market its message better, this papacy has another Achilles’ heel: how Benedict himself dealt with sex abuse cases as archbishop of Munich, and, for 23 years, as then- Cardinal Ratzinger, heading the Vatican’s enforcement office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The past months have brought a cascade of news stories based on charges that Ratzinger’s office was complicit in maintaining abusers in the priesthood. Benedict’s defenders insist he was aggressive in the CDF job, for example, instigating Pope John Paul’s 2001 decree that bishops must inform the CDF of all sexual abuse cases, not just the most egregious ones.

At the same time, supporters like Father Wauck say the Vatican can’t be held responsible for the actions of legions of bishops, running a global church on the local level.

FATHER JOHN WAUCK: The idea that all roads lead to Rome is somewhat misleading in this situation, largely because the pope is a bishop among other bishops. And the authority of a local bishop is not the same as sort of a branch manager. A local bishop has huge authority, both in a — in judicial sense and an administrative sense.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet documents released by victims’ lawyers include letters from bishops in the ’80s and ’90s seeking the CDF’s approval to defrock priests, and getting stonewalled or ignored.

Benedict hasn’t said a word explaining his actions, and his spokesman shrugs off the notion that he needs to.

REV. FEDERICO LOMBARDI: I don’t think that he has to — to justify himself, because he has done very well what he had to do.

MARGARET WARNER: The Holy See is making a big mistake, says Vatican analyst Politi; it should open up all the case files from the Ratzinger era.

MARCO POLITI: If the Vatican doesn’t open its archives, there could be revelations could damage directly Cardinal Ratzinger about what happened in the ’80s.

MARGARET WARNER: Though the former cardinal-turned pope is showing his 83 years, aides insist he’s holding up remarkably well under the strain of this crisis.

But, back across town, college rector Strange finds that hard to believe.

MONSIGNOR RODERICK STRANGE: To find that he has been given a life sentence, death sentence, really, to be pope for the rest of his life, and then to have to deal with these complex, demanding, personal pastoral issues, that’s an enormous burden to lay on somebody, having given such service to the church, and then to find himself carrying this cross.

MARGARET WARNER: The heaviest weight of that cross may be the impact of the crisis on the church’s future, the trust of young people, especially in Europe and countries like the pope’s native Germany.

It’s well-documented, that future was already shaky in Europe. Outside Santa Maria in Trastevere Church on Saturday, musician Daniel Groff, a former altar boy, said he was disillusioned long ago.

DANIEL GROFF, musician: I’m not very into religion or pro-religion. And, I mean, it’s all about the power, so — and it’s very political. So, of course, it can happen, things like — like that. I mean, I’m not surprised that something like that happens. And what I mean is, they talk in a way, but then they act differently, as we — as we can see.

MARGARET WARNER: The picture didn’t seem quite as bleak later that night at a packed service inside the 1,700-year-old church.

But, after the mass, interpreter Luigi Lucioli said the Holy See, to him, is just a place to take tourists.

LUIGI LUCIOLI, translator: We live our Christianity, as a Christian, in our small community. And the Vatican is always seen as an attraction, but I think because of this, because it’s always been really distant to what’s people’s real life.

MARGARET WARNER: Closing that distance with the faithful is crucial for the Vatican, and ensures the papal household will be burning the midnight oil for some time to come.