Vatican’s New Defense on Child Molestation Charges: Finger-pointing

By Rebecca Dube

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.

The Jews and Protestants are worse.

That appears to be the Vatican’s newest defense of its ongoing child sex-abuse scandal.

Responding to criticism, Catholic Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to United Nations organizations in Geneva, read a statement on September 21 to the U.N. Human Rights Council, noting that reports of sex abuse were common in the Jewish community and that most of the American churches being hit by sex abuse allegations were Protestant.

“As the Catholic Church has been busy cleaning its own house,” Tomasi wrote, “it would be good if other institutions and authorities, where the major part of abuses are reported, could do the same and inform the media about it.”

Tomasi’s statement came in response to an accusation from a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Keith Porteous Wood, that the Catholic Church had covered up child abuse and was in breach of several articles under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Jewish leaders were dismayed by the Archbishop’s finger-pointing.

“I was shocked by the statement. I don’t believe in comparing abuse. That’s a dangerous path to travel,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the New York Board of Rabbis, the largest interdenominational rabbinic organization in the world. “They have a problem they need to address; we have a problem we need to examine. Every faith community needs to be accountable to its members.”

In his statement delivered to the Human Rights Council, Tomasi estimated that over the past 50 years, as many as one in 20 Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse. The Archbishop cited articles in the Christian Science Monitor and the Journal of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that estimated abuse rates in the Protestant and Jewish communities matching or exceeding that among Catholics. (No reputable studies exist that quantify rates of child sexual abuse by religious leaders in the Jewish community.)

“One person is too many, so a numbers discussion is not the way to approach it,” Potasnik said.

Over the past decade, thousands of Catholic priests around the world have been accused of molesting children and the Church has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to settle sex-abuse lawsuits. The litigation exposed a far-reaching cover-up of child sexual abuse by the Church hierarchy, which included transferring pedophile priests to new parishes and intimidating victims and their families into silence. In the past few years, revelations of sexual abuse within Orthodox Jewish communities have begun to generate similar allegations and lawsuits.

Tomasi’s statement also drew a bizarre distinction between pedophilia and “ephebophilia,” which he defined as a “homosexual attraction to adolescent males.”

“Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80% to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority, which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the age of 11 and 17 years old,” Tomasi stated.

The organization that originally criticized the Church to the U.N. council, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, characterized Tomasi’s reply as “comprehensively missing the point.”

“No doubt there are abusers in all walks of life, but our point was not the abuse itself but the cover-up in which some of the highest officials of the Church were implicated,” the IHEU said.

Attorney Irwin Zalkin said he was unsurprised by the Vatican representative’s remarks. Zalkin has represented hundreds of victims of sexual abuse in lawsuits against the Catholic Church.

“They just don’t get it. There’s still a complete failure to take responsibility,” Zalkin said. For centuries, he said, Catholic leaders have tried to sweep under the carpet the problem of child sexual abuse. “The sin of scandal far outweighs, in their institutional response, any concern for the safety of children. That has been the problem.”

Zalkin said he has also represented sexual abuse victims in lawsuits against Jewish organizations, Protestant churches, the Boy Scouts and other secular groups, but that the overwhelming majority of people who contact him have claims against the Catholic Church.

“Does [child sexual abuse] exist elsewhere? Of course it does,” Zalkin said. “But not really in the numbers we’re seeing in the Catholic Church.”

Zalkin noted that he is receiving a growing number of inquiries from alleged victims of sex abuse in New York’s Orthodox communities.

“There’s a similar circle-the-wagons attitude, a similar response to that of the Catholic Church,” Zalkin said. “It’s unfortunate.”

In the best-case scenario, Potasnik said, other religions will learn from the Catholic Church’s example and become more responsive to and vigilant about child sexual abuse. Like many other Jewish organizations, the New York Board of Rabbis has crafted guidelines for working with children intended to prevent abuse.

Because of the Catholic scandal, Potasnik said, “The clergy are much more sensitive. There’s a greater sense that we cannot afford to close our eyes.”

Contact Rebecca Dube at dube@forward.com



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