Whether the Vatican is responsible for U.S. sex abuse

Our regular contributor from across the pond, London-based Austen Ivereigh, recently published in the Britain’s daily Guardian newspaper a striking commentary about the clerical sex abuse scandal following Pope Benedict XVI’s latest apology for it. 

Ivereigh makes the frequently overlooked point that all the recent focus on the Vatican and Pope Benedict obscures the fact that “the mishandling of these cases in the past was not by the Vatican, but by the local Church; and it is the local Church which has had to put its house in order (and mostly, at least in English-speaking countries, it has done so). 

“It was the bishops in dioceses who failed to act on the accusations, or who — especially in the 1970s-80s — moved priests between parishes after spells of therapy rather than removing them from active ministry.” 

Ivereigh also addresses another common allegation that misses the mark: While it is undoubtedly true that the Vatican should have responded more quickly and consistently to laicization petitions for abuser priests, “laicization made no difference to whether an abusive priest had contact with children; the key decision — to remove the priest from active ministry — was made (or not) by a bishop. Rome played no part in that process, and the accusation of some U.S. lawyers that there was some kind of Vatican-ordered cover-up has proved baseless.” 

That point brings us to a not-to-miss interview in this week’s issue of OSV Newsweekly. I engaged in a series of email exchanges and phone calls with the lawyer who represents the Holy See in three current lawsuits brought by U.S. sex abuse victims (see Pages 6-7). The victims’ lawyers are trying to drag Pope Benedict and the Holy See into U.S. court, alleging that somehow he or the Vatican either directed abuse cover-up or are liable for the abuse done by priests and the subsequent handling of it by bishops. 

The lawyer, Jeffrey S. Lena, argues that both the facts and international law bolster his case that U.S. courts should dismiss the suits against his client. And he’s done meticulous homework — his filing of motions last month in a Kentucky case ran to nearly 850 pages. 

Lena is a bit of an enigma, and you almost get the sense that he likes to keep it that way. While he was willing to spend all the time I needed over the course of a couple of weeks to pull together that article, there were certain subjects he simply wouldn’t address. He wouldn’t tell me to whom he reports at the Vatican, or whether he’s had any contact with Pope Benedict. He works in an undisclosed location in Berkeley, Calif., and has recently seen an uptick in physical threats. Other details emerging from recent profiles of him add to the intrigue: He drives a Saab, drinks pomegranate tea, used to build homes, and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Read the interview and let me know what you think.