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New Sexual Abuse Claims against the Catholic Church

Aired March 17, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the Vatican is deep into damage control, trying to protect the pope himself. We ask, would the church's sexual abuse scandal ever even have happened if women were in the hierarchy?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has exploded from the United States into Europe now amid charges that the church's culture of secrecy protects the child abusers. Hundreds of victims of sexual abuse have now come forward, particularly in Germany, which is raising troubling questions about the pope's role when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to '82 and then moved a priest accused of child abuse to another diocese.

All of this has once again thrown the spotlight on the church's power structure. Would this scandal have been averted or perhaps limited if women had been in positions of real authority? We'll explore that later.

But first, in his weekly Vatican address, the pope today said that his forthcoming pastoral letter will, quote, "help repentance, healing and renewal."

CNN's Nic Robertson reports.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The questions at the center of the crisis are, what did Pope Benedict know, and when did he know about it, and what did he do about it?

COLM O'GORMAN, VICTIMS RIGHTS ACTIVIST: So what we're seeing is a global phenomenon in a global church, a global system at work with the Vatican at its center.

ROBERTSON: They are questions that began two decades ago when the pope was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. For 23 years, he was the Vatican's chief investigator into allegations of abuse by priests.

O'GORMAN: In 2001, he wrote to every bishop in the world, telling them in the letter that every case of a priest who abused a child was to be referred to his department at the Vatican.

ROBERTSON: Vatican officials are defending the pope, praising his investigative work after he took control of abuse cases.

(on-screen): According to one of the Vatican's top prosecutors, who's also a priest, Cardinal Ratzinger showed great wisdom and firmness in dealing with these cases and, he said, he showed great courage dealing with the most difficult and thorniest of them. And therefore, he said, to accuse the pope of a cover-up is false.

(voice-over): But the pressure just keeps mounting. Newly released details of abuse in Germany are raising questions about the pontiff's judgment, even before he came to Rome, overseeing cases of abuse.

(on-screen): In 1980, when the pope was still a bishop in Germany, he oversaw the case of a priest involved in child abuse. The pope moved the priest from one diocese to another -- his own -- so that the priest could get therapy. Several years later, the priest was convicted of child abuse.

The pope's critics say he should have paid more attention at the time and taken child abuse more seriously.

(voice-over): In Germany over the past few months, several hundred allegations of abuse have been made. New cases are surfacing in Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Brazil, but nowhere is the pressure on the pope and the church greater than in Ireland.

Pressure is growing on the leader of the Irish church, Cardinal Sean Brady, to step down, following revelations he knew of abuse in the 1970s. He kept it from police and had the victims sign an oath of secrecy. The priest involved, Father Brendan Smyth, the Irish church's most prolific pedophile, continued to abuse children for another two decades.

(on-screen): Cardinal Brady says he'll only resign if the pope tells him. Officials here at the Vatican have responded, saying that, in the coming days, the pope will send a letter to the Irish people.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Vatican City.


AMANPOUR: And joining me now from Denver, Colorado, is CNN's senior Vatican analyst John Allen, and he's also the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

John, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: Sure thing, Christiane. Glad to do it.

AMANPOUR: This is extremely troubling, but just let's put this in perspective. Tell us, could this really affect the pope's standing? Is this going to resolve itself in a way that's really negative towards him or not, this particular issue that Nic just reported on?

ALLEN: Well, Christiane, I think any time there is a crisis in the church, it affects the pope's standing. Obviously, it's happening on his watch. Ultimately, he is responsible for it.


I think the story out of Munich that Nic was reporting on about the priest who had been accused of abuse, came into the pope's diocese in 1980 and was then reassigned, I think how damaging that story is to the pope will depend upon what we learn in days and weeks to come as to whether this was an isolated case, or whether there actually was a pattern when the pope was the archbishop of Munich for those five years of not dealing with this crisis and, instead, moving guys around.

Because ultimately the danger here is, if such a pattern does emerge, then I think even reasonable people who don't have any axe to grind would ask the question, will the pope have the moral authority to call bishops to task who failed to deal with this, if it turns out that when he was a diocesan bishop, he was no better?

AMANPOUR: And you say it remains to be seen whether this was a pattern, but surely if it was just one person, it's still a very serious matter. Is there any possibility, is there any precedent -- obviously not, no precedent -- but is there any possibility that a pope would resign over something if it came to a potential cover-up?

ALLEN: Well, Christiane, almost nothing is unprecedented in the Catholic Church. There actually are a handful of precedents of popes who have resigned, although the last one to do so was in the early 15th century.

I think it's unlikely that's going to happen in this case, I mean, particularly because on this one instance that we're talking about, the priest who was reassigned in Munich, church officials in Munich have insisted that the pope -- then Cardinal Ratzinger -- was not informed of that decision, that is, he was aware the guy was in his archdiocese, he was not aware that another church official lower down the food chain had allowed him to continue to work in a parish. And, of course, his later criminal conviction and so on came well after the pope had left Germany for Rome.

And so I don't know that on the back of this one case there's going to be any serious call for the pope to resign or, perhaps, any lasting damage to his ability to govern the church.


ALLEN: But if other revelations emerge -- and, of course, that has been the trajectory of this story, that when there is one case, one report, on allegation, they typically lead to others -- if that's the case here and the thing snowballs, then I think some real questions could well be raised about the church's ability -- or about the pope's ability to lead the church out of this mess.

AMANPOUR: Well, what can he possibly say in the pastoral letter that's addressed to the Irish church, what can he possibly say to mitigate this exploding scandal?

ALLEN: Well, he's not going to address the details of his five years in Munich in that letter. This letter that we are expecting to appear on Friday is, of course, addressed to the church in Ireland.

I think the top note in that letter will be very similar to what he said when he was in the United States in April 2008, when he was in Australia later that summer, both of which are places that have also suffered massive sexual abuse scandals.

The top note will be a clear apology for the suffering that has been caused, first of all, to victims and then to the wider community, a statement of resolution to make sure that this doesn't happen again, and a pledge of cooperation with civil authorities to establish the truth of what happened and to make sure adequate safeguards are in place.

AMANPOUR: Can we...

ALLEN: And all of that, I think, will be welcomed by people. I think he will also throw into the mix a call to Irish Catholics to not lose faith. But it will leave unaddressed the other piece of the puzzle, which many critics would identify, which is, most people are satisfied. The Catholic Church now has strong policies to react if priests abuse. The question is, what about the accountability for bishops who allowed this to happen?


ALLEN: And I doubt we're going to hear any new language on that in the pope's letter on Friday.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me put up some statistics. We have some statistics that show some of these cases. According to the head of the Vatican office that investigates crimes such as these, 60 percent of them involved adolescents of the same sex, 30 percent involve adolescents of the opposite sex, and 10 percent involved young children, in other words, pedophilia.

But apparently, some 60 percent of those cases, there has been no trial, no resolution, no conviction or even acquittal in those cases. So what is the church basically saying? I mean, often you hear words other than "crime" or "criminal" used. What about when forced confessions are assigned to cover these things up? What about when priests or other abusers are moved around? I mean, these are crimes, are they not?

ALLEN: Oh, of course they are. I mean, first of all, just to be clear, of those 3,000 cases that you just mentioned, it's true that in 60 percent of the cases they did not go to a canonical trial. That's the church's internal legal system. But that is because, instead, these priests were removed from ministry and usually removed from priesthood at the stroke of a papal pen.


And that was done to speed up the execution of justice, rather than to delay it.

But you are quite right that today what the church will say is that if a priest is accused of abuse, two things are supposed to happen. He is supposed to be subjected to internal church discipline, which usually leads with being -- leads to being kicked out of the priesthood. And all this is also supposed to be turned over to the police for criminal prosecution.

But in decades past, that clearly was not the church's practice. I mean, quite often what they did was instead try to hush this up, deal with it, in a kind of quiet fashion, never tell anyone what was going on, and often put these guys in other jobs where, tragically, they ended up abusing again.


ALLEN: So even though the church today has strong policies, what is happening is they're now paying the price for the failure to have those policies in the past.

AMANPOUR: Well, what about -- and briefly -- just the culture of secrecy? I mean, you say they have policies that prevent this from today, but apparently the pope hasn't accepted the resignations of four bishops who've been implicated. I mean, what does this say about the real desire to resolve these issues and keep them in the open, rather than trying to bury them?

ALLEN: Well, I think you put your finger on it, Christiane. I think from the very beginning, what we talk about as the sexual abuse crisis has actually been two interlocking, but distinct problems. There's the problems of priests who abuse, and then there's the problem of bishops who failed to clean it up.

I think most fair-minded people would say that the Catholic Church today has fairly strong policies to deal with priestly abuse and to prevent it. What they don't yet have are accountability measures for their senior managers -- that is, the bishops -- who allowed this to happen in the first place and the fact that relatively few bishops have either voluntarily resigned or been asked to resign.

The fact that no other system of accountability has been put into the place, I think that still is the unfinished business of this whole story.

AMANPOUR: John, stand by, because we'll continue this discussion. We'll talk about celibacy, and we'll talk about the power structure with two female religious scholars. We'll talk about the role of women in the Catholic Church and what is stopping them from holding real power.

And as we head to a commercial break, take a look at the latest recruiting video for Catholic priests from the New York archdiocese.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As we praised God, that these five men, Anthony, Christopher, Vincent, Jacob and Louis, have so generously accepted the invitation from Jesus himself to serve him and his church as priests.




MERYL STREEP, ACTRESS: What happened in the rectory?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, ACTOR: Happened? Nothing happened. I had a talk with a boy.

STREEP: Whereabouts?

HOFFMAN: Why does it matter?

STREEP: He's 12 years old. What could be private?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Should I get the...


HOFFMAN: I object to your tone.

STREEP: This is not about my tone or your tone, Father Flynn. It's about arriving at the truth.

HOFFMAN: Of what?

STREEP: You know what I'm talking about, don't you?


AMANPOUR: And that was a clip from the provocative movie "Doubt," starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, its probing questions of child abuse at a Catholic school. CNN's senior Vatican analyst John Allen joins me again, and I'm also joined by Serene Jones, who's president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Janet Smith, who's chair of life ethics at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Thank you all for joining us. Thank you very much for being on this program about this very, very important issue.


And I would like, before asking you direct questions, to play or rather to show a quote from a religious scholar who wrote in the semi- official Vatican newspaper about women's presence in the church. She says that a "greater female presence would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past so often covered the reporting of these misdeeds with silence. Women are more likely to move in defense of young people when it comes to questions of sexual abuse."

Serene Jones, you're here with me. Do you agree with that statement?

SERENE JONES, PRESIDENT, UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: I couldn't agree more strongly. I believe that it's the case that women are not necessarily always going to be better than men in all cases about everything, but it is clear that statistically women abuse much less than men and, in terms of reporting, are much more likely to.

So, yes, it would make a big difference if my Catholic women students at the seminary were in positions of power right now. This would not be being handled this way at all.

AMANPOUR: Janet Smith, what is wrong with that statement? Women statistically abuse less and, therefore, their presence in the Catholic Church and in the hierarchy could have made the difference between the Catholic Church and this current shame that is upon it?

JANET SMITH, CHAIR OF LIFE ETHICS, SACRED HEART MAJOR SEMINARY: Well, it does seem to me there may be a problem of priests who are protective. There may be a problem with secrecy and also a problem with priests who are protective of their brother priests. They've been in seminary with them. They really do become brothers. And when they do something wrong of any kind, it's really hard for them to believe it. I do think there is some degree of cover-up.

I hope the presence of women would make a difference and that there would be more reporting of the abuse, but I've done -- looked into some of the studies done on sexual abuse in the public school system, which is quite enormous, and I don't know that there's evidence -- I'd like to see a study that's done that shows that women are more effective in reporting the abuse that's being done in the public school system, and that would then confirm the hope that a greater presence of women would expose abuse more frequently.

AMANPOUR: You just mentioned that word, "cover-up," and I find that very interesting, because that is, obviously, what everybody is trying to explore.

John Allen, do you have a view on whether more women in official positions in the priesthood, in positions of authority in the Catholic Church could have made a material difference in this decade-long scandal now?

ALLEN: Well, Christiane, I don't have any empirical data to trot out, but I will say that, throughout the discussion of this crisis, I think Janet put her finger on something. I mean, one of the sources or one of the roots of the crisis was -- that many people would point out is a kind of tribal morality within the boundaries of the clerical club, which is that when you see a struggling member of the priestly fraternity, your inclination is to try to give that guy a break, try to give him another shot.

And all of that is noble in a certain way, but it left out of the picture the impact of this crisis upon families, upon victims, and principally upon children. And it could well be that women -- particularly women who have deep, rich experiences of family life -- would have brought an entirely different sensibility to this matter.

AMANPOUR: I want to -- I want to also explore the issue of celibacy, because obviously this whole thing has put a spotlight on that again. And I want to ask about whether it would have been better in these instances for the Catholic Church to allow their priests to marry. Is celibacy a relic of the past?

And let me play something that one of the Catholic scholars of today has said about celibacy, William Donohue.


WILLIAM DONOHUE, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC LEAGUE: This is not a dogma of the Catholic Church. It's not like the divinity of Jesus or the trinity. So they could change this -- what's called a discipline of the church tomorrow if they want to. Let's just say for the sake of argument they do. Guess what you're going to do? You're going to exchange this problem for another one. Look how many rabbis and imams and ministers who are married and cheat on their brides.

So, you know, the question is this: Can people exercise sexual restraint in our society, be they men or women of the cloth or not?


AMANPOUR: Serene, what is your view on what William Donohue just said? And should celibacy really be reconsidered in today's age?

JONES: I don't think that if we didn't have celibacy somehow the problem would go away, but I do think that the fact that we insist on celibacy in the Catholic Church and that women are excluded, that double combination makes it such that we -- it shows us a church that lives in a bubble.

AMANPOUR: What is at the root of this problem?

JONES: Well, you could say that there's centuries of understandings of the church hierarchy, which do shroud it in secrecy. A lot of those were called into question by Vatican II, and much progress has been made in that area. But it is a club that has been controlled by men, predominantly, and it is exactly that club that -- John, I have to disagree with you -- that there is anything noble at all about brothers protecting themselves in the context of such abuse.


AMANPOUR: John, I'm going to come to you to answer that in a second, but first, I want to ask Janet about the role of women. Isn't it sort of anachronistic in any institution today that women should not have and are institutionally forbidden from having actual positions of power, as they are in the Catholic Church?

SMITH: Well, a couple points on this. First, it's not institutional decision. It's a sacramental decision. It's a decision of what the sacrament is of the priesthood. And the church understands the priests to be in the position of Christ.

Now, obviously, women can be Christ-like, as well as any man, but we wouldn't -- we wouldn't choose a women to play the role of Hamlet, right? And the church -- it's much deeper than that for the church, is we wouldn't allow potato chips and beer to be used for the Eucharist. We understand there has to be a certain matter and a certain form -- and these are technical terms -- in order for there to be a proper sacrament.

Now, women are being incredibly included in the -- in the power structure of the church. I think it's 23 percent of the top power positions in the institution of the church in the United States are held by women; 48 percent of the administrative positions are held by women; 80 percent of the paid positions in the church are held by women.


SMITH: So the church -- go ahead.

AMANPOUR: I mean, I hear what you're saying, taking a very literal interpretation, as many Catholics do, who say that the apostles were male and, therefore, as Janet said, you wouldn't have Hamlet played by a woman. What is wrong with that statement? And if there are this many women, as Janet says, in positions of power, again, where is the problem?

JONES: Look, we have women in the Catholic Church that are running all sorts of things, but they are not allowed in the most important position of all, which is the priesthood. And when Catholic doctrine -- when the Catholic position in this regard is discussed, it's not about the apostles. It's about Jesus. It's about saying Jesus had a male body; therefore, when you stand up in front of people and do the mass, if you don't have a male body, somehow the spirit is not going to be present.

I think that is absolutely ridiculous. And the majority of Catholics in this country agree it is an archaic argument and it's one that is bound to oppress.

AMANPOUR: We actually have to wrap this up right now, but, Janet, I'm going to give you the last word. Sorry, John, but I've got to talk to the women.

Janet, quickly?

SMITH: Well, the church -- I disagree that the priesthood is the most important position in the church. Every human soul has the obligation to seek holiness. And the power that the true Catholic wants is the power to serve as Christ served.

AMANPOUR: All right.

SMITH: And you don't have to be a priest to do that.

AMANPOUR: This is a very fascinating debate. We are going to continue the very serious look and investigation at the scandal rocking the church, as CNN continues this reporting.

But next up, in our "Post-Script," we want to take you to a very different place and show you how even in a confined space, like an elevator, people can overcome their differences. That's our "Post-Script," after a break.


AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." And we want to shift our conversation to what unites us, even when cultures clash and when ages collide, as this clip from the short film "Elevator Music" so vividly shows. Take a listen.





AMANPOUR: Smiles there showing that courtesy is appreciated and that being different is, after all, no barrier to accepting each other. And to see more short films from our "Global Dispatch" series or to submit your own film about your world, log on to

That's it for today. Tomorrow, one banker finds a brand-new way to invest that might just help even in the fight against extremism. Until then, check out our podcast on And for all of us here, goodbye from New York.