May 18, 2010

The Vatican and the Wages of Sin

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

In what was arguably the epicenter of the US Catholic sex abuse scandal -- where the Boston Globe broke the story wide in 2002 -- ten churches are officially slated to close.

The Vatican has rejected final appeals by 10 parishes closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, leaving parishioners to consider fighting the closings in civilian courts, the leader of a parish advocacy group said Monday.

. . .

The archdiocese announced the closings of dozens of churches in 2004, citing falling attendance, a priest shortage and financial problems, but has denied the closings were a direct result of the clergy sex abuse scandal. The closings came a year after the archdiocese settled more than 500 claims for $85 million.

The financial costs of the sex abuse scandal are mounting and now threaten the Vatican itself. With law suits from sex abuse survivors escalating, the Vatican has outlined the following defense.

The Vatican on Monday will make its most detailed defense yet against claims that it is liable for U.S. bishops who allowed priests to molest children, saying bishops are not its employees and that a 1962 Vatican document did not require them to keep quiet, The Associated Press has learned.

. . .

The Holy See is trying to fend off the first U.S. case to reach the stage of determining whether victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself for negligence for the failure of bishops to alert police or the public about Roman Catholic priests who molested children.

. . .

The Vatican is seeking to dismiss the suit before Pope Benedict XVI can be questioned or documents subpoenaed.

Its motion is being closely watched as the clerical abuse scandal swirls around the Holy See, since the court's eventual decision could have implications for a lawsuit naming top Vatican officials that was recently filed in Wisconsin and another one in Oregon is pending before the Supreme Court.

So bishops aren't employed by the Vatican. Interesting tack. It makes me wonder what would happen if Catholic dioceses around the world went their own way on a variety of issues like abortion and homosexuality. For instance, if, say, some priest decided to marry two men, something tells me the Vatican might just pull rank.

Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday called abortion and same-sex marriage some of the most "insidious and dangerous" threats facing the world today, asserting key church teachings as he tried to move beyond the clerical abuse scandal.

This is the conundrum for the Vatican. It's been very aggressive on these "moral" issues on which the world has left them behind and awfully quiet about the immorality of sexual abuse of children and adolescents. It turns out the world really cares about the latter and it may be time to pay the piper. This is not to say that the Vatican can't make the legal case about what exactly qualifies as "employment." But it would be obvious, legal hair splitting. It seems a bit cynical but it's understandable. The wealth of the Vatican may be at stake and the church is may be far more financially vulnerable than their apparent opulence implies.

I also think the Vatican is going to be very hard pressed to prove that it did not maintain a culture of secrecy and strongly discourage bishops from turning abusive priests over to police. As discussed, Pope John Paul II approved just such a policy as recently as 2001.

If the "we don't actually employ clergy" legal maneuver fails, the Vatican may be on the hook for a whole lot of legal liability. I'm beginning to wonder how many of the church's moral pronouncements and policy decisions revolve around finances -- both in terms of how money comes in and how it could go out. For instance, it has been suggested by many that doing away with mandatory celibacy makes the church vulnerable to sex and sex abuse scandals. Remember that approximately half of the clergy are involved in illicit sexual relationships at any given time. That pretty strongly implies that the policy has failed and needs to be reevaluated. But there, too, the decision seems to come down to money.

Twenty-five years ago I had an engaging conversation with Cardinal Hume in which I asked if the Roman Catholic church would ordain married men or single women first. His reply was unequivocal: "Single women." When I expressed surprise, he pointed to the outstanding women in Roman Catholic religious orders and said: "And we can't afford a married priesthood. The Church of England pays you a stipend on which a family can live, we pay pocket money; it houses you, we would have to convert every presbytery into a family home – it would bankrupt us." He was commendably honest and pragmatic, avoiding indefensible doctrine.

Last year seven men were ordained priest in the Roman Catholic church in the UK: there were 574 ordained in the CofE (of whom 274 were women). There is a crisis looming for the Vatican and they just don't get it: the priesthood is ageing and diminishing, something must be done or the church will implode.[Emphasis added]

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