Vatican reaction to Belgian scandal

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LISA MULLINS: The abuse in Belgium is the just the latest scandal to rock the Roman Catholic Church in recent years. John Allen is Vatican correspondent for the independent weekly newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter. He's currently in Denver. John, we just heard how the Vatican has been publicly silent so far on the revelations from Belgium. Why is that?

JOHN ALLEN: Typical speaking, the Vatican would see these scandals as primarily an issue for the local bishops and local bishops conference to resolve. That is, it's not a question of doctrine, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is crystal clear, which is the sexual abuse of children is a heinous crime and sin. And therefore, the administrative follow through on that, the Vatican would see as resting largely within the bailiwick of the local church to deal with. They prefer for the local bishops to address these problems in the language of the culture and the tempo of the culture.

MULLINS: But that's not to say that the pope hasn't been speaking out in some cases because he has made remarks for the record, has he not?

ALLEN: Sure. I mean Benedict XVI both before and after his election to the papacy has a clear public track record. Some would say it's a mixed track record. But he is the first pope to clearly apologize for the sexual abuse crisis in his own name. He is the first pope ever to meet with victims of sexual abuse, which he's now done five times and is poised to do for a sixth next week in the United Kingdom. He is also the first pope ever to issue an entire teaching document on the sexual abuse crisis which he did with his pastoral letter to the Catholics in Ireland back in February.

MULLINS: So the problem then of sexual abuse, we're talking about it in the realm of the Catholic Church, but is it particularly in terms of sexual abuse of children, as prevalent in other major religious organizations as it is in the Roman Catholic Church?

ALLEN: There have been a number of empirical studies of the incidents of sexual abuse of children within various kinds of institutions, not just religious groups, but also secular institutions like state run orphanages, juvenile corrections systems, and so on. And I think, without going into details, I think the basic takeaway from all of that is that the sexual abuse of children is a pervasive social malady that no institution, including the Catholic Church, has any monopoly on it. The problem is probably no worse, and arguably, somewhat better in the Catholic Church than it is in many comparable institutions. But, of course, the problem with the Catholic Church is two-fold. One, you've got an institution that presumes to preach to the world on sexual morality and therefore when it's caught not walking its own talk that is especially poisonous. The other is the Catholic Church has a very clear hierarchy, so unlike pointing the finger, say, at Judaism or Hinduism, I mean with the Catholic Church it's very clear on whose desk the buck stops.

MULLINS: As opposed to you're saying in Judaism or Hinduism because?

ALLEN: Because it has a much more diffuse authority structure. I mean ask yourself, just as a thought exercise, who is in charge of Judaism? I think you'd probably be stumped to come up with an answer and so would I. That's by way of contrast with the Catholic Church where it's very clear ultimately who has responsibility and therefore I think it's much more credible for people to insist that the Church give a kind of corporate response for this crisis.

MULLINS: How do we measure, how does the Catholic Church measure, the amount of damage that has been done to the flock? Is it in numbers of people who are coming to the pews? Is it in financial giving? Is there any really measure?

ALLEN: The easiest empirical measures of the massive blow that the Catholic Church has taken because of the sexual abuse crisis would be in dollars and cents. I mean you look at the United States which has been living with this now for more than a decade, where an estimated 2.5 billion dollars is already been spent by the Church settling sex abuse litigation and some people believe that could be doubled. In other words, we could be talking about 5 billion before this is all over with. But I think in many ways that's the easiest, but it's also merely the tip of the iceberg because I think what most Catholics would tell you is that the real blow has to be measured sort of emotionally at the level of, the kind of internal crisis of confidence that this has induced in the Church. The fact that many Catholics know longer feel they can trust their own leaders, their own bishops. Then also in the near impossibility that anyone speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church has in the public forum these days of getting past the crisis. I mean it's become almost impossible for Catholic spokespersons to mobilize opinion on issues that they care about, ranging from abortion to immigrant rights, because the automatic pushback in the culture is we'll take you seriously once you show us that you can protect kids from harm.

MULLINS: John Allen covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. Thank you, John.

ALLEN: You're welcome.