12 April 2010

Bishop: church treated abuse cases as a "minor cold"


Once again, Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo - fresh off of an Easter homily in which he accused the federal government of waging a phony crackdown on narcotic trafficking cartels - veered from the standard line by speaking candidly on a topic many of his colleagues would seemingly prefer to put behind them.

The bishop - one of Mexico's most outspoken religious leaders - spoke candidly April 12 on the church response to the controversy swirling over the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, saying that in past years the matter was treated as a "minor cold" and not taken seriously enough.

"It was a very superficial way of seeing things. At one time it was believed a priest that had that problem had a cold; it was thought it would go away," Bishop Vera told reporters on the eve of the annual spring planning session of the Mexican bishops' conference.

The comments come as the Vatican defends itself against allegations from a number of countries that it failed to take allegations of sexual abuse committed by clergy seriously. But it also comes as Mexico's most notorious case - that of Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel - receives enormous scrutiny and the order confirms the sordid details of its founder's double life, which was marked by him fathering at least three children and the sexual abuse of seminarians.

Bishop Vera's comments appeared to differ from the recent tone taken by the country's most senior Catholic official, Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City. The Cardinal, on the Thursday before Easter, read his priests the riot act, saying the Archdiocese of Mexico City would not defend any prelate against allegations of sexual abuse. Barely a week later, however, Cardinal Rivera said the church was under attack, but not in crisis. The archdiocese issued an editorial April 11, saying the church was not being damaged by a supposed crisis that had been provoked by the actions of a few "terrible priests" along with "undeniable outside enemies."

The enemies reference is a nod to the history of sour church-state relations in Mexico, although the church appears to have taken a more active role over the past decade by denouncing the changes to the Mexico City laws concerning abortion and same-sex marriages. The Archdiocese of Mexico City also has an especially sour relationship with the Mexico City government - in part because of measures such as the new same-sex marriage laws and the decriminalization of abortion, but also because the church refused to endorse allegations of electoral fraud made by 2006 presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (López Obrador's PRD party dominates Mexico City politics.)

The posture of the Archdiocese of Mexico on the issue of abuse has been fodder for church critics, however, and his recent admonishment was greeted with skepticism. The day after Cardinal Rivera admonished the assembly of 500 priests about abuse, the newspaper Reforma ran the headline, "Cardinal (finally) condemns pedophilia." One comment on the newspaper's website asked if the April 1 admonishment was an April Fool's prank. Cardinal Rivera had preavious defended the Legion of Christ and its founder in the strongest of terms - even after the Vatican in 2006 asked Father Maciel to renounce his public ministry and lead a life of prayer and penitence. In 2006, the cardinal called allegations the Vatican had punished Father Maciel, "Pure fiction."

The Legionaries of Christ have been a controversial order, but one that successfully courted the wealthy and powerful. (Father Maciel presided at the wedding of Carlos Slim, who would become the world's richest man.) It's fate is uncertain, however: A five-bishop investigative committee recently submitted a report to Vatican that could result in the order being disbanded - or forced to be refounded.

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