Friday, February 12, 2016

The Vatican’s Chronic Case of Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Msgr. Tony Anatrella. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
The late Fr. Andrew M. Greeley once remarked that the Vatican not only doesn’t tell the left hand what the right hand is doing, it sometimes operates not knowing that coordination is required. Nowhere was that tendency more evident than in this latest kerfuffle over reporting clerical child abuse. Here, the lack of coordination has led to another episode of Vatican foot-in-mouth disease, another piece of evidence that the Vatican just doesn’t get the sex-abuse problem.

“Comply with Requirements of Law”

Prior to 2001, bishops and ordinaries weren’t required by canon law to report suspected predator priests to the local authorities. (Then again, neither were schools, Boy Scout troops, or Little League officials required by civil law to report their suspicions about any adult in their organizations.) Even after Pope St. John Paul II, at the prompting of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger, issued the motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela promulgating newer, faster procedures for removing said priests from the clerical state, no requirement for reporting was written into the Code of Canon Law.

However, the CDF did eventually create a “Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations”, which was posted on the Vatican website. When the SST norms were updated by the CDF in 2010, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi referred to the Guide in his prefatory note, stating that “in the practice suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it is necessary to comply with the requirements of law in the various countries, and to do so in good time, not during or subsequent to the canonical trial.”

A year later, Cdl. William Levada, having become Prefect of the CDF after his predecessor was elevated to the papacy, issued a circular letter over his signature, “To Assist Episcopal Conferences in Developing Guidelines for Dealing with Cases of Sexual Abuses of Minors Perpetrated by Clerics”. In it, Cdl. Levada said:

Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities. Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed [bold type mine.—ASL]. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.

Getting the Message

By this time of course, scandals had rocked not only the US but Ireland and other countries, the main feature of which were that bishops had either failed to report or actively covered up for abusive priests. More and more Western bishops were forced to realize that the game had changed, that they were no longer allowed to keep a potentially scandalous situation quiet.

However, one of Murphy’s unwritten but better-known laws is that, in every organization, there’s at least one person (usually more) who didn’t get the message. Moreover, for all Pope Francis’ good intentions — he did after all create a commission for this very problem — he doesn’t seem to fully understand its ramifications. Witness, for example, his appointment of Belgian Cdl. Godfried Danneels to the Synod on the Family despite the latter’s having been involved in the cover-up of an abuse case; even the staunchest of the Pope’s defenders were left shocked and baffled.

It’s said that some Europe-based cultures don’t get the Anglo-American obsession with sexual issues. If so, that may be why Francis created his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors but left it out of the loop in training new bishops on handling such cases. For that was the core complaint of a recent Crux post by associate editor John L. Allen, Jr.: “What’s the point of creating a commission to promote best practices, and putting one of the Church’s most credible leaders on the abuse issue, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in charge of it, and yet not having it address the new leaders who will have to implement those practices?”

But that’s not what’s causing the new uproar.

“No Duty to Report”?

At one point in his story, Allen focuses on French Msgr. Tony Anatrella, a psychotherapist based out of the Collège des Bernardins in Paris and a consulter to two pontifical councils. Monsignor Anatrella, apparently in charge of the presentation to the latest crop of new bishops, “did a credible job of slogging through components of the Code of Canon Law governing clergy accused of sexual crime with a minor,” said Allen, though the presentation was “long on therapeutic analysis”.

Then Allen lowered the boom on him, and in the process set up a firestorm:

In other ways, however, his presentation seemed seriously wanting. For instance, Anatrella argued that bishops have no duty to report allegations to the police, which he says is up to victims and their families [emphasis mine.—ASL]. It’s a legalistic take on a critical issue, one which has brought only trouble for the Church and its leaders. Why, one wonders, was it part of a training session?

The text in question, as reported by The Guardian, is: “According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds [italics mine.—ASL].” Allen states that the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Canadian Cdl. Marc Ouellet, invited “suggestions for improving the experience” of the training course.

The most obvious suggestion: Re-write that stupid passage. For while it simply suggests that bishop doesn’t have to report his suspicions right away, it’s lent itself too easily to the interpretation that the bishop doesn’t have to report anything at all. And although Msgr. Anatrella is a low-level functionary, a small cog in the Vatican machine, the fact that this passage slipped through without check or comment to make it into the final training materials gives it an accidental yet embarrassing “officialness”.

He Who Is Silent

Father Lombardi dismissed the common interpretation in a press conference Thursday, saying, “Anatrella does not say anything new or different than what has been said by the competent ecclesiastical institutions,” directing reporters to the circular letter referred to earlier. And it’s possible Allen misunderstood Msgr. Anatrella, and that The Guardian took the statement out of context in following Allen’s lead; I’ve yet to find a link to the actual document.

But even in this best-case scenario, the damage has still been done — lede after lede has been printed throughout the English-speaking world saying that the Vatican tells bishops they don’t have to report clerical sex abusers even when law requires it. Given recent history, who can blame people for not believing otherwise?

To wrap this up: The one problem that has persisted through the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis is the Vatican’s inability to “stay on message” where clerical sex abuse is concerned. For myself, I have no doubt that all the various clerics on the left side of the Tiber mean well, and are as interested as anyone else in doing away with the problem insofar as is humanly possible. But some of them still believe that some kind of discretion is possible. They still believe that they can prevent scandal through silence.

They’ve forgotten the old Latin maxim: Qui tacet consentire videtur: “He who is silent must be seen to consent.”