Foreign Policy: The Vatican And Child Abuse

by David Rothkopf

I am beginning to think that John Edwards, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Octomom, and Jon Gosselin have joined together to form their own public relations firm … and that their first client is the Vatican. I have come to this conclusion because it is impossible for me to imagine any other group of people giving the Holy See the kind of P.R. advice they seem to be getting.

The evidence came in yesterday’s extraordinary statement from the Vatican “defending” themselves against attacks that they have not done enough to combat sexual abuse by priests. Rather than contritely focusing on all they have done to address this cancer on their credibility, they offered a response that will be studied in schools for years to come, whether in classes seeking to offer a lesson in how not to handle a crisis or in those offering an advanced degree in miscalculated chutzpah.

Following a meeting with the U.N. Human Rights Council meant to address concerns that the Church was failing to respond appropriately to a long history of members of the clergy abusing their flocks, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi read a statement that was undoubtedly considered by some spin doctor-equivalent somewhere to advance their case but which actually probably amounted to more convincing proof that the Vatican doesn’t get it on this issue than anything discussed behind closed doors with the United Nations.

Among their points:

They argued that “available research” showed that only 1.5 to 5 percent of the clergy engaged in child sex abuse. Which is to say that they seemed to think that possibly having one out of every 20 priests taking advantage of the children in their parishes was not really such a big number. After all, it’s only 6,000 to 20,000 priests worldwide.

Tomasi then went on to quote statistics suggesting that in the U.S. protestant churches actually had a much worse child sex abuse problem and that sexual abuse was also common in Jewish communities. “They’re doing it too,” was never a very good defense when I was in elementary school and in this case, it seems a particularly ill-considered line of argument. Compounding the mistake, he also argued that family members, neighbors and babysitters were far more likely to molest children than priests. While all this may be true, it does not exactly sound like they were focused on accepting responsibility for actions within their own organization. Not being a Catholic, I’m not sure of the procedures, but I’m pretty sure that the proper drill at confession is “forgive me Father for I have sinned” and not “well, yes, Father I may have sinned, but I wasn’t the only one.”

As reported in the Guardian, the statement then took what was probably its most bizarre turn:

The statement said that rather than paedophilia, it would “be more correct” to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.

“Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17.”

Aha. Well, I don’t know about you, but now I feel much better about things. Most of the 6,000-20,000 priests who are abusing children at a rate somewhat lower than that of other religious groups are doing it with somewhat older kids. That puts things in a whole different light! I’m sure the whole ephebophilia defense will have altar boy enrollments skyrocketing in no time at all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vatican’s response neither satisfied the man accusing it of covering up sex abuse within the Church nor did it sit very well with representatives of other religions. Keith Porteous Wood, of the NGO that charged the Catholic Church with violating several provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, said not enough had been done by the Church to address its internal problems or to open its records to permit civil prosecution of wrong-doers.

Protestant and Jewish representatives were quick to respond condemning the Church’s attempt to spread around the blame and defending their own approaches to the problem.

Had these other religious groups asked my advice, I might have told them to simply remain silent and let the Archbishop Tomasi have the limelight and the microphone all to himself. It is hard to imagine what the Church could possibly do to look worse than it already did in the face of a global scandal that has cost it $2 billion in settlements in the United States alone. Hard to imagine … and yet somehow, that’s precisely what it did.