Catholic daily buries the news in sexual abuse headline
Headlines are supposed to highlight the news, but sometimes the news is uncomfortable. Like the sexual abuse cases for the Roman Catholic Church. Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference, played down the big news in its front-page headline on Saturday about an interview with the head of the Vatican office dealing with charges of sexual abuse against priests.
In the middle of the front page (at left), it ran the headline “Il ‘pm’ vaticano: in tutto il mondo trecento i preti accusati di pedofilia.” — Vatican public prosecutor: 300 priests accused of pedophilia in the whole world.” That actually doesn’t sound like that many, given all the cases we’ve heard about all these years.
It’s only in the interview on page 5 that the real picture emerges. There the reader finds a much larger figure of 3,000 accusations of sexual misdeeds of all kinds made against priests since 2001, concerning cases dating back up to 50 years ago. That sounds more like it, although it still must be lower than the real number of cases because so many don’t get reported.
Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the “promoter of justice” for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, broke down this large figure into three categories — cases of pedophile and same-sex ephebophile acts and cases of heterosexual acts. Some 60% of the cases were ephebophile (with adolescents), 30% were heterosexual (with adolescent and adult females) and 10% were pedophile (with prepubescent children).
So which figure got highlighted on the main page? The smallest, of course. This is all the more interesting because the the news shorthand for these cases tends to use words like pedophile or children. By ignoring the majority of cases that concern adolescents, the Avvenire headline makes it all seem less of a problem than it is.
In an earlier blog post, we asked whether the hierarchy would have hushed up so many abuse cases if there had been more women in decision-making positions. That question of perspective comes up here too. Avvenire may think this is a reassuring headline. I wonder how many of its readers — especially those who are parents — find any consolation in the news that “only” 10% of accused abusers were going after children under 12 while the majority preyed on youths a few years older.
Here are the relevant passages from the interview in English translation, as provided by the Vatican press office:
Avvenire: How many (sexual abuse cases) have you dealt with so far?
Scicluna: Overall in the last nine years (2001-2010) we have considered accusations concerning around three thousand cases of diocesan and religious priests, which refer to crimes committed over the last fifty years.
That is, then, three thousand cases of paedophile priests?
No, it is not correct to say that. We can say that about sixty percent of the cases chiefly involved sexual attraction towards adolescents of the same sex, another thirty percent involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining ten percent were cases of paedophilia in the true sense of the term; that is, based on sexual attraction towards prepubescent children. The cases of priests accused of paedophilia in the true sense have been about three hundred in nine years. Please don’t misunderstand me, these are of course too many, but it must be recognised that the phenomenon is not as widespread as has been believed.
The accused, then, are three thousand. How many have been tried and condemned?
Currently we can say that a full trial, penal or administrative, has taken place in twenty percent of cases, normally celebrated in the diocese of origin – always under our supervision – and only very rarely here in Rome. We do this also in order to speed up the process. In sixty percent of cases there has been no trial, above all because of the advanced age of the accused, but administrative and disciplinary provisions have been issued against them, such as the obligation not to celebrate Mass with the faithful, not to hear confession, and to live a retired life of prayer. It must be made absolutely clear that in these cases, some of which are particularly sensational and have caught the attention of the media, no absolution has taken place. It’s true that there has been no formal condemnation, but if a person is obliged to a life of silence and prayer, then there must be a reason…
We can say that in ten percent of cases, the particularly serious ones in which the proof is overwhelming, the Holy Father has assumed the painful responsibility of authorising a decree of dismissal from the clerical state. This is a very serious but inevitable provision, taken though administrative channels. In the remaining ten percent of cases, it was the accused priests themselves who requested dispensation from the obligations deriving from the priesthood, requests which were promptly accepted. Those involved in these latter cases were priests found in possession of paedophile pornographic material and, for this reason, condemned by the civil authorities.
Where do these three thousand cases come from?
Mostly from the United States which, in the years 2003-2004, represented around eighty percent of total cases. In 2009 the United States “share” had dropped to around twenty-five percent of the 223 cases reported from all over the world. Over recent years (2007-2009), the annual average of cases reported to the Congregation from around the world has been two hundred and fifty. Many countries report only one or two cases. There is, then, a growing diversity and number of countries of origin of cases, but the phenomenon itself is much reduced. It must, in fact, be borne in mind that the overall number of diocesan and religious priests in the world is four hundred thousand, although this statistic does not correspond to the perception that is created when these sad cases occupy the front pages of the newspapers.
And in Italy?
Thus far the phenomenon does not seem to have dramatic proportions, although what worries me is a certain culture of silence which I feel is still too widespread in the country. The Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) offers an excellent technical-juridical consultancy service for bishops who have to deal with these cases. And I am very pleased to observe the ever greater commitment being shown by Italian bishops to throw light on the cases reported to them.
You said that a full trial has taken place in around twenty percent of the three thousand cases you have examined over the last nine years. Did they all end with the condemnation of the accused?
Many of the past trials did end with the condemnation of the accused. But there have also been cases in which the priest was declared innocent, or where the accusations were not considered to have sufficient proof. In all cases, however, not only is there an examination of the guilt or innocence of the accused priest, but also a discernment as to his fitness for public ministry.