- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

VATICAN CITY As they crafted a sex-abuse policy for disciplining errant priests, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops may have been hampered by an unseen handicap: They were too American.

The Vatican refused last week to put its stamp of approval on the U.S. plan. It declared the provisions confusing, ambiguous, "difficult to reconcile" with church law and left open procedural questions that needed to be resolved.

Officials at the Holy See were concerned about what Pope John Paul II himself called "summary trials," a prolonged statute of limitations, the use of civilian review boards and the possibility that innocent priests would be sacrificed by zealous bishops anxious to placate an angry public.

Beneath the surface, the Vatican's response begged some broader questions. Namely, whether American democracy and legal traditions are in conflict with the Vatican's insistence on the authority of its bishops and its laws for the worldwide church what some see as a clash of cultures.

Three months before the American bishops adopted their sweeping policy at a June meeting in Dallas, the Vatican was sending out warning signs.

A top Vatican cardinal, one of a group of prelates who would eventually examine the policy, wondered out loud whether the scandal rocking the U.S. church had some particular American aspect to it.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy, said at a Vatican news conference he found it interesting that many of the journalists' questions were in English a fact, he said, that "already says something about the problem and gives it an outline."

The problem of sexual abuse, he said, had developed in a culture of "pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the workings of the Vatican, said that how the two societies view law and legislating is an area where the culture clash is particularly pronounced.

"Rome prefers laws be permanent and unchanging, while in the U.S., we change laws all the time," Father Reese said. "So we would have no problem with enacting a law and then amending it later, based on experience, if it is not perfect."

The fate of the U.S. policy is still up in the air: A joint American-Vatican commission, including Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, is charged with working out problems with the plan.

But as it was adopted in Dallas, the policy takes away discretionary powers from bishops a move counter to Vatican tendencies and also opens the way for cases to end up in the criminal courts.

It calls on bishops to remove from active ministry any priest who has ever been the target of a "credible" accusation of child sex abuse, and forces them to report any accusation to law enforcement authorities.

Many victims have already taken cases to civil courts, costing the church tens of millions of dollars in compensation.

The Rev. Paul Robichaud, pastor of Santa Susanna, the American church in Rome, said the issue of civil authority is sensitive to the Vatican because of basic differences with America over how legal systems are viewed.

While Americans put great faith in theirs, Father Robichaud said, the Vatican is "deeply suspicious of secular legal systems" based on the experience of dictatorial societies in the Third World, former communist countries in Europe and continued controversy over justice in Italy itself.

Father Reese spoke of the magisterium, or the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to teach religious truth, to illustrate another difference.

In Europe, he said, the teacher is considered to have all the knowledge, and a student who questioned a teacher would be considered "disrespectful." In contrast, "American teachers are delighted when students challenge them because it indicates they are actually listening and thinking.

"In the church, what Americans consider legitimate questions in Rome are seen as challenges to the authority of the [magisterium] of the hierarchy," he said.

Not everyone sees the issue in a cultural context.

The Rev. Giovanni Marchesi, a Jesuit commentator close to the Vatican, said it was the duty of the American bishops to focus on the particular needs of their flock while the Vatican was obliged to assert the laws of the universal church.

But he also said it would be a mistake to make a "special case" of the United States by having "special laws" in the church for dealing with pedophilia.

The United States should be governed by the same church laws as the rest of the world, he said. To do otherwise "would be a humiliation for American society."

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