Commentary: The Communique From the Vatican

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It's been more than a week now since the American cardinals released the communiqué on sexual abuse following their two-day summit at the Vatican. And a lot has been said in the media and in catholic circles about how close to a zero tolerance policy the communiqué actually came. But in this commentary, WNYC's Brian Lehrer wonders about some other parts of the communiqué that have gotten much less attention but may also have far-reaching consequences.

BRIAN: First, we should acknowledge the good news. No matter how each diocese interprets "zero tolerance", and no matter how much the press picks at the fine print, it does appear that the American church is taking the issue very seriously now. sexual abuse of minors will never be wiped out completely, but it will be much more difficult in the future for bishops to cover up for those accused, and abusers themselves will be instant pariahs.

But sexual predators may not be the only ones to suffer. In the communiqué, the cardinals were much clearer in taking a stand against dissent than against pedophilia. On pedophilia, the communiqué called only for "a special process for the dismissal … of a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial predatory sexual abuse of minors." It's already been much debated which sexually abusive priests might NOT be notorious, which might not be predatory, and why only SERIAL sexual abusers would be subject to the process.

But the communiqué did not equivocate on a number of other matters: for example, dissent. the communiqué states in no uncertain terms: "the pastors of the church need clearly and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care." No waffling about notorious spreaders of dissent, or serial spreaders of dissent. ANY spreading of dissent must be clearly and publicly denounced.

what kind of dissent?

the communiqué clearly labeled homosexuality a suspected root cause of the problem and dismissed out of hand the possible role of priest celibacy. The communiqué said: "together with the fact that a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained, the meeting reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy". Case closed.

On homosexuality, the communiqué calls for "the deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood. ". church scholars on left and right agree that line means: let's consider banning gays from the seminary. And not just serial or notorious gays either. The item fails to mention that homsexuality has not been scientifically linked to pedophilia any more than celibacy has. Even the church hierarchy does not take the position that gays are more likely to commit child sexual abuse than heterosexuals.

But the communiqué, implies that they are. Or at least that they might be. Possible alternative explanations for the preponderance of boy victims are not addressed - such as the greater access priests have historically had to boys than to girls in the church, or that the priesthood may attract self-hating gays who think celibacy is their only moral choice.

In any case, these items from the cardinals' communiqué have gotten very little press scrutiny in the last week. so the end result of the church's current crisis may turn out to be that sexual predators are run out of the priesthood, but so are reformers and celibate gays.