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Spotlight Report

Abuse scandal angers conservative Catholics

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/27/2002

The Catholic Church's most reliable supporters, conservatives who have traditionally leapt to defend the institutional hierarchy whenever its practices have been questioned, are increasingly irate over the church's handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Commentators William J. Bennett, William F. Buckley Jr., and Patrick J. Buchanan have harshly criticized Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Self-described orthodox Catholics are denouncing the church's bishops.

''We spend our time monitoring and fighting anti-Catholicism wherever it exists in American society, but I have always had a disdain of intellectual dishonesty, and if I sat on the sidelines I'd have to be accused of that myself,'' said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a group that fights anti-Catholic bias. ''I don't know of a single Catholic priest or layman who isn't furious about the sex abuse scandal, in terms of the tolerance they [the hierarchy] have had for intolerable behavior and the way they've played musical chairs with these miscreant priests. I've never seen such anger.''

The anger has been voiced most visibly by conservative Catholic columnists.

''Even the most loyal of Catholics and their faithful priests must concede there is something rotten in our Church,'' Buchanan, a former presidential candidate, wrote last week.

''The Church has been disgraced, and an outraged faithful made to pay hundreds of millions in damages because of bishops who were derelict in their duty to weed child predators out of seminaries and sanctuaries, and turn them over to the police as the serial criminals they were,'' he wrote.

Buchanan urged that ''Catholic bishops who failed in their managerial and moral duty to protect innocent children should be sent to monasteries to do penance the rest of their lives.''

Bennett, who was secretary of education during the Reagan administration, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that ''priests, including Cardinal Law, who have been involved in these coverups must be removed from positions of authority.'' And a month earlier, Buckley, best known as the longtime host of ''Firing Line,'' called for ''the withdrawal of the failed father,'' referring to Law.

''The responsibility rests with the hierarchy,'' John Blewett, the managing editor of Latin Mass, a conservative Catholic magazine, said in an interview. ''They stand in the spotlight, and rightfully so. Any church founded by Christ himself, claiming to know the truth and preach the truth, can't be covering up administrative failings.''

The criticism of the hierarchy from the left wing of the church has been predictable. A variety of liberal groups long upset about the church's policy of restricting the priesthood to celibate men and of opposing homosexual relationships have seized on the clergy sexual abuse crisis to push reforms they have long supported.

But the criticism from the right, which has historically been quicker to defend the church hierarchy, reflects the depth to which the clergy sexual abuse crisis has shaken the largest religious denomination in the nation.

But there remains a deep divide over what the church should do next. Liberals are pushing for the ordination of women and married men and for a democratization of the church's leadership, while conservatives are pushing for a renewed emphasis on celibacy, more aggressive recruitment of heterosexual men into the priesthood, and more traditional standards at seminaries.

''People on the far left and the far right greet bad news for the church as good news for them, because the left can smile and say, `We told you so - you didn't make enough reforms,' and the right can say, `We had too many reforms, and let's go back to pre-Vatican II,''' Donohue said. ''People on the left have been itching for reform regarding the totality of the church's teachings on sexual ethics, and they're going to seize this moment. And on the right, a lot of people have been arguing for a long time that the church has gone soft and doesn't have the courage of its convictions.''

Buchanan articulated the conservatives' concern in his column, saying, ''what the Church needs, to restore its moral authority, is to stand up to the moral confusion of modernity, not embrace it. That way lies total ruin.''

Many conservative Catholics agree, often pointing to Catholic seminaries and seminarians as the problem.

While liberals say the issue of sexual orientation is not related to sexual abuse - and there are no scientific data tracking the sexual orientation of priests who sexually abuse minors - some conservatives suggest that the preponderance of male adolescents among victims may be linked to a disproportionately high percentage of priests who are gay.

''It's obvious that there has been a considerable breakdown of clerical discipline, and that is an indication of people who have been inadequately converted,'' said George Weigel, the pope's American biographer and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank that studies religion and civic life. ''It's not a problem of celibacy, but a problem of people failing to live out the celibate commitments they have made, because they were not properly formed into being radical Christian disciples.''

Weigel, like other conservatives, says the answer to the problem is to change American seminaries and recruitment processes.

''It is extremely difficult in today's sex-saturated culture for anyone to live a chaste, celibate life, and it is obvious from the numbers that we've seen over the last few months that it is more difficult for homosexual men to lead chaste, celibate lives,'' Weigel said. ''That raises some very serious questions that need to be addressed, thought out, and prayed over. We cannot any longer act as if this were not the reality of the situation.''

Ronald P. McArthur, the president emeritus of Thomas Aquinas College, a conservative Catholic institution in California, agreed. ''It's pretty well documented that seminaries, by and large, in these latter times have not wanted orthodox, ordinary male candidates,'' he said, ''but have rather looked to those who are more pliable or more upbeat with all the modern ideas, and therefore many of those who would have become faithful priests have not gone into seminaries.''

McArthur says he would urge seminaries to recruit men who are ''heterosexual, with a certain psychological stability and rigorous intelligence.''

''There has been an attempt by so-called theologians and liturgists and leaders within the church to literally midwife another religion, and that has had repercussions in the seminaries and in the wider life of the church,'' McArthur said. ''What is happening now, if not predictable, is at least compatible with the flight from orthodoxy.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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