Saturday, April 19, 2008

Grand Inquisitor Faces Inquisition

Along for the trip with B16 is the highest-ranking American the Vatican has ever known: Joseph Ratzinger's handpicked successor at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the native Angeleno Cardinal William Levada.

Archbishop of San Francisco on his appointment to the post, Levada's nomination as the church's "Grand Inquisitor" barely three weeks after Pope Benedict's election caused shockwaves in the curial ranks. Known for his pragmatism, the 71 year-old theologian -- a seminary classmate of Cardinals Roger Mahony and Justin Rigali and his successor by the bay, Archbishop George Niederauer -- once chalked up his appointment to the Vatican's #3 post to both his "sense of the complex pastoral realities that a bishop faces" from his stints in San Fran and Portland in Oregon, and his experience in dealing with the sex-abuse crisis here in the States; the CDF handles the Holy See's end of the process for the suspension or laicization of credibly accused clerics.

On the latter topic, the "Theologian-in-Chief" made some news at a lunchtime briefing held yesterday at the offices of TIME (fullaudio... video):
[Levada] offered early signs on Friday that the Vatican will change its internal, or canon, laws concerning the church's response to sexual abuse allegations — a matter that has become the main topic of the Pope's American visit. The changes would follow adjustments made some time ago involving the church's statute of limitations with regard to some particularly egregious offenses. The Cardinal suggested that laws meriting amendment may involve statutes of limitations regarding abuse cases....

Asked whether the Vatican should consider such changes to canon laws, Levada said, "It's possible. There are some things under consideration that I'm not able to say."

The American-born Cardinal, who was Archbishop of San Francisco before Benedict brought him to Rome, said that there have already been some abuse cases in which the Vatican had "made exceptions" to canon laws — cases in which victims may not have spoken up until years later. "We found that many of the cases go back over quite a number of years, and [victims] don't feel personally able to come forward until they reach a certain level of maturity. Some canon norms are like statutes of limitations, and if the case warrants...we've been able to make exceptions." He said that those cases were ones in which "strong measures needed to be taken, even dismissal from the priesthood."

Levada's comments flowed out of a discussion initiated by this reporter's question regarding the Pope: having been so forthcoming about the abuse scandal during this trip, would he address one of its more disturbing aspects, by sanctoning supervisors and even bishops who had "aided and abetted" the crimes? Levada responded that cases would have to be judged individually: "I would want to see the situations that we'd be talking about," he said. "I personally do not accept that there is a broad base of bishops who are guilty of 'aiding and abetting' pedophiles."

Levada said, however, that bishops have admitted to him "that if they had known then what they know now they would have acted differently, but many bishops acted on the basis of psychological reports that were...not really on top of the various aspects of this" — a likely reference to the then little-known recidivism rates of offenders.'s Times offers this nugget:
The pope’s decision to reach out to victims and to speak out publicly, and repeatedly, about sexual abuse, said Cardinal Levada, came at the urging of several key church officials in the United States: Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston; Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, an Italian who is the papal nuncio, or chief Vatican diplomat, to the United States.
...and Beliefnet blogger David Gibson offers another look at the session:
Cardinal Levada said that he had no input on the pope's addresses or preparation for this visit, even though Levada is the highest-ranking American ever to work in Rome. "I have my own little work to do all the time," Levada said drolly.

Asked about the question of giving communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, Levada largely demurred. But he did seem to side against a handful of hard-liners in the U.S. hierarchy who have staked out an independent position on the practice, or at least against the current patchwork of positions. "My stand is that I don't think our Catholic population is served by a territorial morality." He said he hoped that when the election season ends there could be a "more serene and effective discussion" about church teaching and what ought to be done in this regard.

Returning to the issue of the scandal, Levada was asked if, in light of the pope's visibility on the abuse crisis, the Vatican foresaw any subsequent action or envisioned a future course for policies or programs. "That's a good question that I really hadn't thought of," Levada said. He said the pope's words and actions were meant to be "exemplary," in the sense of setting a pastoral example for others to follow. He said he hoped victims' stories would now "be given more prominence."

Levada later told a few reporters that the CDF was begininning to work through the backlog of laicization cases that had once built up to more than 700, according to reports. He did not say how many remained to be adjudicated. He also seemed to indicate that the CDF was considering ways to raise the church's canonical statute of limitations on reporting sexual abuse. He noted that it often took many years before victims felt they could come forward and report such abuse.

I also asked the cardinal if he could clarify remarks that the pope made on the plane that distinguished between pedophilia and homosexuality--a linkage many have tried to make. "I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality but pedophilia, which is another thing. We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry," Benedict said.

Yet his statements raised questions about what the pope meant (there was no opportunity for follow-up) and whether his words signaled a re-thinking of the Vatican statement in 2006 that seemed to bar gay men from the seminary.

Levada said he would not interpret the remarks as any modification of the seminary policy. But he said he wasn't sure what else the pope's words indicated. "I don't know what to make of that myself," Levada said. He said he believes Benedict wanted to focus on "the grave problem of pedophilia"--defined as the abuse of a pre-pubescent child by an adult--rather than what Levada calls "ephebephilia," or "homosexual acting out with adolescent boys."

Levada called ephebephilia a clinical term, but it is not listed in the DSM and mention of it raises many red flags among experts and within the gay community. Victims advocates also dislike the term, preferring to denote all sexual activity by an adult on a minor as child abuse, which is the criminal and civil law definition.

In short, there still seems to be little clarity. Many believe the pope was trying to make a distinction in order to shield homosexuals from efforts to identify gays with pedophiles. That seems like an obvious--and laudable--goal. But the standing of gay men vis-a-vis holy orders is still a bit uncertain, and seems likely to remain the ecclesiastical version of "don't ask, don't tell."
On a final note, it's been over a year since the Roman buzz first whirled with speculation that Levada might be making a return trip to these shores: here to New York in succession to Cardinal Edward Egan, who reached the church's retirement age of 75 last year and is expected to leave office later this year.

Though muted -- and likely unfounded -- the talk keeps swirling... which just made his appearance in the Luce Room all the more interesting.

PHOTO: Jamal Countess/Wireimage