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Clergy Pedophilia: Sin or Crime?

by Vincenzo Lavenia

An interview with Vincenzo Lavenia, historian and writer, professor of Modern History at the University of Bologna.

Conducted by Luigi Sandri, Confronti editorial staff.

After an extensive excursus on how, over centuries, various civilizations in Europe have evaluated sexual relations between adults and minors (with results that we sometimes could not accept today), two Italian scholars face the drama of clergy pedophilia, after its exposure in the USA at the end of the last century, and its subsequent uncovering in many countries, “Catholic” and not. They also consider how, between reticence and “zero tolerance,” the various popes, from Wojtyla to Bergoglio, have confronted a disconcerting scandal.

The disturbing question of the pedophilia of the clergy has for some time been arousing many reactions, both inside and outside the Roman Church. In this context is placed Sin or Crime? [Laterza, 2021, pages 284, euro 20], a work in which Francesco Benigno and Vincenzo Lavenia (two professional historians: the first a teacher at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, the other at the University of Bologna) address, through a wide and accurate investigation, the Roman Church in the face of pedophilia (they do not deal with sexual scandals of other religious institutions). There are many acts that the State and the Church unanimously consider “crimes” and, in various ways, punish. Unanimously they consider a murderer a “delinquent”: some countries, after a regular trial, condemn the offender to a sentence that might be years spent in jail, or, in some countries, shooting; another, if the murderer confesses and repents, forgives him, but establishes a specific spiritual punishment for him. Regarding other specific criminal behaviors, the distance of the evaluation between the one party and the next is abysmal.

The Code of Canon Law (CIC), launched in 1983 by Pope Wojtyla, in section 1364 considers the apostate, the heretic and the schismatic guilty of a very serious “crime,” and for each of them provides for the excommunication latae sententiae, i.e. automatic. On the other hand, few states address these “crimes” legally and enforce a change of religion (but in some areas of the world – especially in Islamic states – ancestral custom, or legislation itself, provides for severe penalties, perhaps even death for the “apostates”).

Even more divergent, then, is the judgment on another case: the canon law section 1367 provides for the excommunication “for those who profane the consecrated species,” the host of the communion ritual; but no state would impose jail on anyone who throws a piece of bread on the ground!

These examples help us understand the distinction between “sin” and “crime”: there are acts that both the State and the Church consider “crimes,” and others that, while a “sin” for the Church, are not of concern to the State. 

And what about pedophilia? For States, in general, sexual violence against minors is a variously punished “crime”; but for the Church, canon law section 1387 recited: “The priest who in the sacramental confession solicits the penitent to sin against the sixth precept of the Decalogue is to be punished … in the most serious cases by dismissal from the clerical state.” And 1395, § 2: if the cleric violates the Sixth Commandment “with a minor of 16 years, he is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state.” The violence of the pedophile on a minor, according to the CIC is not a “crime,” but only a violation of the Decalogue (which is not of interest to the State).

By focusing on the difference between “sin or crime,” Benigno and Lavenia specify the angle from which they deem it necessary to examine the clergy pedophilia issue. To do this, they make an excursus on how marriage, sexuality, homosexuality and relationships with minors were evaluated in the Bible (sometimes with some results that we today could not accept), in the early Church, under the Byzantines, and in the modern age. In contemporary times, finally placing the underlying theme of their work in this framework, they provide the most important data, starting from the 1980s, since that is when – in the Catholic context – the “pedophilia of the clergy” emerged from the mists and imposed itself on public opinion with an unstoppable crescendo. In his book, Vincenzo Lavenia explains this sequence to us.

Professor, can you summarize the question, since it publicly broke out in the United States of America thirty-five years ago?

Recent history starts with the denunciation of sexual abuse of minors against Father Gilbert Gauthe, in 1985, in Abbeville (Louisiana). A serial pedophile, the priest ended up on trial and his story helped to establish, in US public opinion, a certain image of the abusive Catholic priest. It was not the first time that the media lifted the veil on practices that were too often tolerated: already at the end of the nineteenth century, when psychiatry invented the pathological category of the pedophile, the Roman Church had had to deal with an aggressive judicial campaign which affected France, Spain and Italy, complete with articles in newspapers, trials and even street demonstrations. But it was the US cases, during the pontificate of John Paul II, that opened up the debate on the pedophilia of the clergy. The most sensational episode, famous thanks to the film Spotlight [Tom McCarthy, 2015], was that of Boston: it led to an investigation by a team of journalists from The Boston Globe, involving dozens of priests – transferred from parish to parish but covered up by the hierarchies – and in 2002 forced Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Francis Law to resign. Since that moment, the Holy See has had to deal with dozens of judicial cases (which have forced dioceses to pay millions of dollars to compensate the victims), and with a crisis of credibility that has manifested itself very strongly in traditional Catholic countries such as Chile, Ireland, Germany (half Catholic), France, Italy and even Poland. And even in Australia, just in these days the diocese of Ballarat has had to compensate an adult raped by a priest as a child with 1.5 million dollars.

The investigations show how false the equation is, to say a homosexual is a pedophile, and also that a clergy person is a pedophile (in fact, the majority of abuses take place in families!). And yet the phenomenon, even if it involves a small minority of priests – from 4 to 6% – is widespread everywhere, and disconcerts the faithful.

What disconcerted us was above all the inability of the hierarchies and the norms of canon law to take the point of view of the victims, especially since public opinion since the end of the 1980s has made the defense of every innocent victim a pillar of social coexistence. On this the Roman Church has showed a delay, added to the reluctance to face this scourge by virtue of a sexophobic tradition that for centuries has not distinguished pederasty and homosexuality, and has been concerned with protecting the sacraments or the honor of the clergy more than protecting minors. But it is right to remember that the legal protection as “persons” of minors and women victims of abuse is a recent acquisition; and that the cases of pedophilia – covered up in silence and complicity – also affect the world of sport and entertainment, schools and other religious denominations, and especially families.

Like his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis also confirmed “zero tolerance” against pedophile priests. Was his declaration consistent in practice?

After the years of Woytila ​​and Ratzinger it is undeniable that Francis made a turning point. He insisted on the obligation of the ecclesial authorities to denounce cases of pedophilia to secular magistrates, fighting against clericalism. And yet, even without counting the internal resistance within the Church, there is no lack of ambiguity: for example, on the occasion of the trip made to Chile in January 2018, Pope Francis underestimated the accusations of cover-ups and abuse of pedophilia against Juan de la Cruz Barros, Bishop of Osorno, and his protégé, Father Fernando Karadima, thus alienating a large part of the Chilean faithful. But then he invited some victims to the Vatican, asking their forgiveness for having been misinformed; and he summoned the entire episcopate to Rome, asking everyone to resign, then evaluated case by case whether to accept them or not.

Looking ahead, what choices could the pope make to eradicate the scourge of clergy pedophilia: perhaps to abolish priestly celibacy?

It is difficult to answer definitively. Many call for the abolition of celibacy, which perhaps for some years also served as a cover for numerous homosexuals unable to accept their desire and, certainly, for dozens of men pathologically oriented towards minors. Moreover, with the current crisis of vocations it would make sense to reconsider the obligation of celibacy and the prohibition of the priesthood for women. In any case, I believe that the Church must face the issue of sexuality in a less hypocritical way and continue on the path of allowing the judicial authorities of the States to shed light on cases of abuse of the clergy, without attempting to cover up the scandal, considering that pedophilia is indeed a sin, but also a very serious crime (and an abuse of power).

Catholic Church © JF Martin via Unsplash


* A few days after we had done this interview in May, on June 1 the apostolic constitution released Pascite gregem Dei – dated May 23 – in which Pope Francis reforms Book VI of the CIC, dedicated to Sanctions in the Church. Limiting ourselves to our theme, we point out an important variation: while canon law section 1387 punished “the priest who in the confessional solicits the penitent to sin against the sixth precept of the Decalogue,” and thus evaluated, in fact, sexual violence against minors, now, under the title of Crimes Against Human Life, Dignity and Freedom, the new canon law section 1398 punishes “with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, the cleric who commits a crime against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with a minor or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason”; and also those who “buy or disclose pornographic images of minors.”

** On April 27, Don Giuseppe Rugolo, a priest of the diocese of Piazza Armerina which also includes Enna, was placed under house arrest because he was accused of sexual violence against three minors. One of them declared that for some time the victims had already told the story of his abuses to Monsignor Rosario Gisana, bishop of the diocese since 2014, but that they were not believed by him; the victim then wrote to the pope for justice. For his part, the prelate in 2019 had allowed the priest to go and live in Ferrara where, according to the local Curia, he behaved in an irreproachable way.

Enna’s prosecutor, Massimo Palmeri, commenting on the arrest, launched “an appeal to other potential victims to report any violence suffered. Various elements lead us to believe it is probable that there are other victims of the priest’s sexual attentions. We invite you to come forward.” And the bishop, who in January – so the defenders of the alleged victim say – had offered through Caritas, 25 thousand euros as compensation, declared: “The accusations against Don Giuseppe, if established, are certainly a serious fact both under the penal and moral aspect.” But the priest’s lawyers protested against the “media pillory, even with slanderous content, against our client.” And many of the parents of the many children whom Rugolo had followed as a seminarian and then as a priest defended Gisana from the accusations of “covering up” the affair.

But L’Abuso – the defense network, in Italy, of the victims of the pedophilia of the clergy (www.retelabuso.org) asked Francis to be consistent with his motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi (2019), which requires every bishop to aid civil justice in defending abused minors by clergy. Gisana did not do it; therefore, the appeal concludes, the pope should dismiss him.

Ph. Inside dome seen at the Bernini canopy © Effems via Wikipedia Commons

Vincenzo Lavenia

Vincenzo Lavenia

Historian and writer, professor of Modern History at the University of Bologna

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