Vatican Study on Sex Abuse; "The Passion's" Casting Director

Sensitive Topics Addressed in a 2003 Conference

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, MARCH 4, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A Vatican study on sex abuse that was released just a few days before the reports of the U.S. bishops' conference, merits a closer look.

Among the expert opinions, it contains two presentations by Vatican officials, and a number of questions raised by participants that indicate the Holy See's thinking on this issue.

The 220-page Vatican study, entitled "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," is not an official report, but rather the proceedings of a three-day conference held last April at which eight non-Catholic psychiatric experts spoke on the topic of sexual abuse.

Members of nearly all the Vatican dicasteries attended the conference. The study includes excerpts of questions which those members asked the panel of experts.

The study shows that there is a serious attempt under way to understand and address this complex problem on both sides of the Atlantic.

The opening talk of the April conference, republished in the study, was given by Monsignor Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is responsible for adjudicating cases of sexual abuse.

"The Church is first of all committed to a humble acknowledgment of the problem," Monsignor Scicluna said.

"Methods of response to these heinous crimes that were adopted in the past are in some countries undergoing scrutiny and this may, in some cases, cause the Church untold embarrassment," he said. "It is, however, a good opportunity to own up to past mistakes and learn for the future."

In his talk, Monsignor Scicluna outlined some points which the doctrinal congregation has elaborated regarding Church law and procedure in sex abuse cases.

The most recent law -- John Paul II's letter of April 30, 2001, issued "motu proprio" (on his own initiative) -- states that "a sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue by a cleric with a minor under 18 years of age is to be considered a more grave delict, or 'delictum gravius.'"

A "delictum gravius" is considered "particularly harmful to the Church and deserving of the strictest punishments."

Regarding this definition, Monsignor Scicluna offers some insight into the praxis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the following points are quoted from the text):

1. Any external violation of the Sixth Commandment involving a minor is relevant, and this includes indirect or non-contact abuse (such as exposure of minors to pornography or lewd indecent acts). The recent praxis of the Congregation has established that the downloading, as opposed to the simple browsing, of pedophile pornography from the Internet fall under the 'delictum gravius.'

2. Another matter concerns the age of the victim. The recent legislation puts this at "under 18 years." This follows a number of civil laws. It has to be pointed out, however, that this innovation does complicate the question of discernment concerning the nature and gravity of the offense. ... It is easy to understand that there is a very important distinction between the case of a male cleric or religious who has intercourse with a girl of 12 and the case of a cleric or religious who has intercourse with a girl who is 17 years 10 months old and who was very much in love with him. ... In the second case it would be difficult to state in honesty that the cleric or religious concerned is a threat to minors.

3. The question of including religious who are not clerics under the law is at the moment under discussion. I personally think that in such grave matters no distinction should be made. (Monsignor Scicluna, however, has recently explained that the law still states that only cases involving clerics are reserved to the doctrinal congregation, and no change is to be expected in the foreseeable future. Other cases involving religious non-clerics would be dealt with directly by the religious orders and ultimately by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.)

4. Article 5 of the "Motu Proprio" sets the statute of limitation for these crimes at 10 years which run from the 18th birthday of the victim. The constant tradition of Church law was to exclude "delicta graviora" from prescription or the statute of limitation. On 7 November 2002 the Holy Father granted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the faculty to derogate from prescription on a case-by-case basis. There is tendency supporting a return to the previous norm, which simply stated that "graviora delicta" were not subject to prescription.

The Vatican is also grappling with the question of how best to screen candidates for the priesthood. Here are some of the questions Vatican officials asked the experts:

-- How can one avoid a situation in which men with pedophile tendencies are able to hide behind a celibate life? Answer: Screening can help, but there is no 100% guarantee.

-- "There is currently a debate in the Church," said one Vatican participant, "on whether or not such direct questions [on psychosexual history of candidate] seen as too invasive, can be used with candidates for the priesthood." What is your opinion? Answer: Experts were divided but tended toward supporting such procedures.

-- What qualifications should those asking prospective seminarians questions about their psychosexual history have? Answer: They should have completed an academic course on sexuality; have interviewing skills; be comfortable with their own sexuality.

-- Is a person's high interest in working with teen-age youth a potential risk factor for sexual abuse? Answer: It depends on his motivations for wanting to work with youth.

-- Is phallometric testing (penile response to visual stimulation) an accurate test for risk factors and would it be recommended for use in screening? Answer: It is the only reliable scientific test for measuring sexual preference patterns and can be the best predictor of recidivism, but it can be considered unethical to show images of naked children and would be a "public relations nightmare" for the Church, according to one expert.

Archbishop Csaba Ternyak, secretary of the Congregation for Clergy, asked the experts: "[T]o what degree one can talk about the rehabilitation of the offender, what are the most effective methods of treatment, and on what grounds we can say that a person who has never offended is at risk to sexually molest someone?"

The archbishop also spoke on the damaging effects of the crisis for the priest-bishop relationship and the "sense of gloom" felt by priests in good standing who "perceive their bishops to have turned against them" and "have become disillusioned about the effectiveness of the laws of the Church to defend their dignity and their inalienable rights."

"There have been more than a few suicides among accused priests," Archbishop Ternyak told the conference.

He said he would like to see a campaign aimed at the general public on morality and chastity, "to motivate people to work toward greater self-mastery."

For seminarians and priests, the archbishop said, priority must be given to leading them "to greater intimacy with God in prayer and with the fraternity of their brother priests."

The policy of "zero-tolerance" was overwhelmingly disapproved by the panel of experts, although no Vatican officials weighed in on the discussion in the study.

One expert called zero-tolerance a "case of overkill" since it does not differentiate among individual cases.

By the same token, the experts consistently cite American studies and programs such as the American Psychiatric Association and the Big Brother/Big Sister screening program as leading the way in the understanding and treatment of issues involved in sexual abuse.

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Romans Were the Cruel Ones

Amid the talk over possible anti-Semitic sentiment in "The Passion of the Christ," I had the opportunity to meet Shaila Rubin, the American Jewish casting director who worked with Mel Gibson on the film.

I asked her if the accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of Gibson or his film rang true for her.

"I don't think Mel willing, wittingly set out to make a film that is anti-Semitic or anti-anything," Rubin said.

"I think I was only the second person to receive a copy of the script, which was top secret," she said. "I had to keep it under lock and key and I read it, very thoroughly, and then I had a meeting with Mel Gibson and the production team at one of the hotels and the first question I was asked was: Did I have any problem with the script?

"I immediately said no, because I did not. I read it twice and had no doubts at all, I did not find it anti-Semitic."

What were her impressions of Gibson?

"I found him a warm, intelligent, generous person and a very funny man," Rubin said. "I am not defending him because I want to defend him. I want to defend him because he is a fantastic person. I don't see any reason why he would make a film that would cause a third world war."

I asked if Gibson, in choosing and instructing the cast, had indicated that the Jews should look vengeful or bloodthirsty -- as some have accused them of appearing in his movie.

"No," Rubin said. "For the Judas role there were several candidates, and the one that I thought he might choose, an Italian actor, he did not choose because there was something in his eyes that Mel felt was too cruel. And that's not what he wanted from Judas. He wanted a Judas who was indecisive, not at all cruel."

"I did hear him say to the Romans, 'I want to see more energy in the whipping.' The Romans are doing that, not the Jews," she said.

"I found that the Romans were far more cruel in the script than anything," Rubin added, "and I think that comes out in the film."

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Lyon's Outspoken Cardinal

The second-youngest member of the College of Cardinals is Philippe Barbarin, the 53-year-old archbishop of Lyon, France. Portions of an interview he gave recently to Nicolas Diat of the French agency H&K are translated below.

Raised in a Catholic family of 11 children, four of whom were ordained or consecrated, Cardinal Barbarin was described to me by one French journalist as a "freethinker." Indeed, in the interview, he rejects any label of left or right, saying, "The Church is on both sides."

Despite an increased workload since receiving his red hat last October, Cardinal Barbarin still makes himself available every Friday evening at the back of the Lyon cathedral for parishioners who want to talk to him.

He also considers his charge as bishop to his diocesan priests one of his most important responsibilities.

"My great worry is that someone for whom I have responsibility could fall into infidelity," he said. "A priest of my diocese recently decided to abandon his mission. He was 40 years old. I couldn't do anything to keep him."

On the issue of priests involved in sexual abuse, Cardinal Barbarin said: "I can understand that priests commit errors, they are men. But in the case of pedophiles, I am profoundly revolted. These stories are monstrous; they hurt and sometimes even destroy lives for good.

"No, the Church in France will not remain silent in the face of these graves acts of certain priests. The tragedy connected to pedophilia does not concern only priests. Has the national education system and other organizations touched by this evil spoken as clearly as the Church?"

Are you favorable to maintaining celibacy in the Church?

"It is an irrational demand, a sort of folly," he said. "But the Church thinks that, first of all, it is a witness, and also an immense grace that allows us to be freely and wholly attached to God.

"In entering into celibacy, young people must reflect more than ever on what chastity is going to represent in their lives. It is normal to be afraid in committing one's life so ardently. I always think of this phrase of Gandhi: 'That which Catholicism has guarded as most pure is the celibacy of priests!'"

And what about women priests?

"The only thing which counts in the Church, is not priests and bishops, but holiness. This is the real hierarchy," Cardinal Barbarin said.

"We forget the names of priests or popes, but remember the names of saints, whether men or women," he said. "It's a fact and it's well that it is so."

"I am in favor of women taking their place in the life of the Church and I declare that they should do so!" he continued. But as for ordination, I think the Church will continue to follow the example of Christ who, among his thousands of disciples, chose 12 men as apostles.

"It seems to me that the current social pressure for male/female equality carries no weight before that which Jesus wanted and did!"

Regarding Islam:

"Christianity has always distinguished the spiritual from the political, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.' On the contrary, the union between power and religion is inscribed in the Koran, which poses a real question. There is a danger on the part of Islamists.

"I personally receive numerous letters from Muslims asking for the sacrament of baptism, but they are afraid. The media does not speak enough about the young women threatened with death because they want to convert to Christianity."

On bioethical research:

"For Christians, the human embryo is not a thing ... but legislators consider it as material for a laboratory!

"It has become almost impossible to raise the slightest criticism because geneticists tell us that it helps to advance their research ... the controls for research on animals is ending up to be more severe than that for men."

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at delia@zenit.org.