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Clerical woes
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 05 - 2002

The sex scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the US has uncovered deep political and theological divisions that threaten to rip the church apart, reports Samia Nkrumah from Rome
These are difficult days for the Roman Catholic Church. It is a particularly bad time for its followers in Bethlehem where the Vatican has to watch while the Church of the Nativity siege enters its second month and the Pope's pleas for its end are ignored by the Israeli authorities.
"What would the reaction be if a mosque or a synagogue was being fired upon or besieged in the same way as the church in Bethlehem," Mario Biasetti, an Italian authority on Vatican issues pointedly asked Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Vatican has responded to the siege by sending its envoy to Israel. But the weak response of Catholics at large coincides with the recent disclosure in the Boston Globe that the Catholic Church in the United States has, for almost two decades, covered up dozens of sexual abuse charges brought against its priests by paying huge bribes to the victims' families.
The scandal is not so much that there are priests who might be paedophiles -- an accusation the Vatican contests, claiming that most cases involved adolescents and not young children -- but the failure of the cardinals in Boston and New York to inform the civil authorities of the crimes. To many, this failure is an abuse of power by the church leadership. Reacting to accusations, the US bishops, we are told, transferred offending priests to alternative parishes. The implications of these sex charges are very grave for the Catholic institution.
The American Catholic Church is in serious political and financial trouble. In the wake of the Globe's discovery, many American Catholics have denounced their leaders and called for the resignations of Cardinals Bernard Law and Edward Egan, the archbishops of Boston and New York. Both are at the centre of the cover-up allegations. Whilst the Vatican is likely to prevent this happening, the discontent and the accusations will not go away, particularly since the church has been ordered to release damaging documents which prove their knowledge of the incidents.
Having lost trust in their priests and the church institution, more Catholics now feel that they should have a say in religious reforms. This mood strengthens the hand of critics of the church's traditional stance on birth control, abortion, celibacy of priests, homosexuality and women's priesthood.
On his many trips, the Pope is often charged with not listening to worshippers and asked why the church is not more democratic on issues such as birth control. His reply is always the same: democracy has nothing to do with religion, either you believe or you do not. The current crisis can only expand this gulf between the modernist reformers and the conservatives.
Even more serious is the church's financial losses. Since the scandal erupted, many followers, including some influential and wealthy figures, are withholding their donations from the church. They do not want to see their money wasted in lawyers' and court fees. Donations are said to have diminished by 20 per cent recently. It is feared that the American Catholic Church which owns and runs some of the best schools, hospitals and universities in the country, may have to declare some of its concerns bankrupt.
In addition, the church has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars -- some say a $1 billion -- in legal settlements. These legal bills are set to grow as the allegations pile up. In a recent statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls ruefully commented "the painful thing is that it's all now about money."
And the financial implications do not end in the US. Though the Vatican in Rome has many assets and other sources of income, such as the Vatican Museum and the Vatican's bank, it is well known that the church receives considerable financial support from its American dioceses.
The Vatican's response to events has been low-key. Pope John Paul II called a meeting between the US cardinals and the heads of several offices in papal court, last week. Another meeting is expected to take place in the US in June, to discuss policy guidelines on how to deal with future cases. But as yet, there is no official policy on dealing with past cases.
Following last weeks meeting, the Vatican stated that "the sexual abuse of minors is a crime ... and a horrendous sin." Controversially, the statement demanded priests guilty of "serial" sexual abuse be dismissed. However, those priests charged with, but not convicted of the crime, will maintain their post.
So far, the Vatican has not taken any action against Cardinal Law and has not asked for his resignation. Insiders say that in the worst case scenario, Law will be transferred to Vatican City in Rome. Cardinal Law, who has apologised publicly in the US, has since rejected such a suggestion.
It is widely held that the meetings between the US cardinals and Vatican officials fell short of expectations and that any unified decision was prevented by the division between the liberal and conservative elements inside the Vatican.
Comparing the media fury in the US to the subdued reaction in Europe, analysts believe that though similar cases of clerical sexual abuse exist in Europe, the power of Vatican conservatives to control the media and other institutions is greater in Italy than in the US, where the puritanical trend is strong and where there are more reformist Catholics.
Others suggest that the uproar is due to the popularity of Catholicism and also due to the envy of other churches. Catholics are now the largest denomination in America, with one in four citizens being a Catholic, although they are not all strict followers of the church's doctrine. Additionally, there is an ethnic element: Hispanics form the largest Catholic ethnic group, echoing Latin America's 500 million Catholics or half of the one billion Catholics worldwide. The accusations are a good opportunity for the American Christian Right which has been traditionally comprised of fundamentalist Protestants -- with support from Mormons, Jews and some politically conservative Catholics -- to gloat over the American Catholic church's and the Vatican's dilemma.
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