In the latest chapter of the Vatican’s attempt to come to grips with the sexual abuse crisis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is expected to release a set of changes to the church’s rules for meting out ecclesiastical discipline against abuser priests sometime in the next few days.
Vatican sources caution, however, that the revisions are largely a matter of consolidating existing practice, rather than a dramatic new approach to how sex abuse cases are handled.
Sources also stress that the revisions affect only the internal ecclesiastical status of an accused priest. In a separate set of guidelines published in April, the Vatican said that civil law regarding reporting crimes of sexual abuse of a minor to the police and other authorities should always be followed.
In Vienna on Monday, 10 Austrian bishops convened a crisis session to deal with the fallout. Erich Leitenberger, a spokesman for the Vienna Archdiocese, said church officials around the country had been inundated with letters, phone calls and e-mail messages, including from parishioners saying they were leaving the church.
Austria, a majority-Catholic country with a complicated Nazi past, had been reeling from the pope’s revocation of the excommunication of four schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who has denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers as well as the scale and genocidal intent of the Holocaust.
While that firestorm was still raging, Benedict ignited another by appointing the Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner, known for [saying that Kartina was punishment for the sins of the people of New Orleans] and for saying that homosexuality was curable, as the auxiliary bishop of Linz.
The leaders of the Catholic Church seem genuinely baffled whenever they ignore or excuse anti-Semitism and someone objects. Why, they wonder, were people so upset that the pope met with Kurt Waldheim? There was that Wehrmacht business, but didn’t the former United Nations secretary general lead an otherwise exemplary life? What’s wrong with Carmelite nuns erecting a huge cross at Auschwitz? Can’t we just live and let live? Can’t we stop harping on these unpleasant secular matters that have no significance theologically?
The latest case in point is Richard Williamson, a priest in the ultraconservative movement known as the Society of Saint Pius X. The society is a traditionalist Catholic group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II and still uses the Tridentine Latin Mass. Williamson and three other members of the society were excommunicated in 1988 when movement founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, now deceased, consecrated them as bishops in spite of specific orders from Pope John Paul II not to do so. While not obeying the pope is a really big no-no and Lefebvre and his “bishops” have also gone so far as to call recent popes, including John Paul II, “heretical,” the current pope has apparently decided it’s time to make peace. Benedict has just rescinded the excommunication of Williamson and his three comrades. The announcement of the pope’s decision came not long after Swedish television aired an interview in which Williamson denied the existence of gas chambers and said no more than 300,000 Jews had died in Nazi custody.
The roughly 67 million Catholics in the United States make up nearly one-quarter of the American population, but just 6 percent of the global Catholic total of 1.1 billion. Ninety-four percent of the Catholics in the world, in other words, are not Americans, which may help explain why the pope and his lieutenants are not always thinking American thoughts when they get out of bed in the morning.
That’s a useful bit of context to bear in mind in light of a tough new Vatican document on bioethics, released one week ago, that ratchets up the church’s condemnations of embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, the “morning-after pill” and a host of other techniques it regards as violations of human dignity. …