For more than a month, Pope Benedict XVI's silence has been driving the clergy sex-abuse crisis. His reference on Thursday to the need of "penance" for the church, which is "under attack," is unlikely to stem criticism. But this week, the Vatican's No. 2 man, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, also took a stab at changing the narrative and complicated matters.
Bertone, who serves as Vatican Secretary of State, chose not to politely shoot down a question that has come up numerous times since the crisis erupted: Would the priestly vows of celibacy be reconsidered? "Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia," Bertone said during a press conference on Tuesday in Chile, where he was on a weeklong visit. "That is true. That is the problem."
Maybe Bertone should have taken the silent route too. Gay-rights groups around the world lashed out at the comment, starting with Chilean activist Rolando Jimenez, who called it part of a "perverse strategy by the Vatican to try to escape its own responsibility" for allowing abusive priests to go unchecked. More telling was criticism from within the church. U.S.-based Jesuit writer Father James Martin publicly took on Bertone, disputing the research behind the theory and pointing out that the Pope himself declined to cite a correlation between homosexuality and sex abuse of minors when asked by reporters on the papal plane in 2008. Finally, after the French embassy to the Holy See issued a rare statement on Wednesday condemning the "unacceptable" remark, the Vatican press office was forced to issue an official clarification of Bertone's remarks, saying he was referring to homosexual priests rather than the general public.
Vatican insiders say the brushup is the latest sign that the troubles in Rome run deeper than just the Pope's apparent difficulty in facing accusations about his role in the church's dark past on this issue. Blame often falls first on Bertone, whom Benedict plucked for the prime job in 2006, after the two had worked closely for many years in the Vatican doctrinal office. The Secretary of State job has enormous responsibility, essentially serving as Vatican Prime Minister, charged with making the wheels of the billion-strong church turn smoothly, while the Pope focuses on being shepherd to the flock and teacher in chief. Though well liked, the tall and bespectacled Salesian from Italy's northern Piedmont region has not been getting good reviews. "Bertone is a disaster," a Vatican official told me before the latest public brouhaha. "He doesn't have a sense of how things work outside of Italy."
Indeed, what is often described as simply a problem of communications strategy in the Roman Curia is in fact much more profound: what both secular and religious institutions call governance.
The problems date from John Paul II's papacy, which suffered from a leader largely uninterested in administrative affairs and often away from headquarters, trotting the globe. That left Rome to the 20 or so Cardinals to vie for influence. The hope was that Benedict, who as Joseph Ratzinger was one of the most influential of the cadre of Vatican Cardinals, would whip the Roman Curia into shape. Instead, starting with Bertone, he chose to play defense. Says a longtime Vatican observer: "He knew the place well and saw a lot of long knives. He wanted loyalty above all else and chose people whom he could trust blindly, and hoped they could learn on the job."
Bertone has tried to exert his influence over the unwieldy Vatican bureaucracy by placing his trusted Italians in key positions and serving as the ultimate gatekeeper to the Pope, who has fewer direct meetings than his predecessor had and stays focused on his writings and continuing his work as guardian of church doctrine. "Bertone has a stranglehold over things," says the Vatican official critical of the No. 2 man. "But that may be what Pope wants."
Right now, one can imagine, everyone at the Vatican would like most of all to find a way to quiet the global uproar over the church's handling of clergy sex abuse. In the past week alone, besides the criticism over Bertone's comments, a priest in Massachusetts has suggested the Pope should resign, while two of the Vatican's harshest critics, anti-religious writers Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, have called for Benedict's arrest when he arrives in Britain in September for a visit.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has offered some signs that the Curia is responding, including his posting updated rules on the Internet about reporting abusive priests to the civil authorities and a hint that the Pope may meet with victims during his trip this weekend to the island nation of Malta. Still, Lombardi and others tend not to have easy access to the Pope, who is ultimately the one who must take the lead.
Instead, there is at least one other top Cardinal who has the Holy Father's ear. His name is Angelo Sodano, and he is Bertone's predecessor as Secretary of State. Working mostly behind the scenes as the influential dean of the College of Cardinals, the 82-year-old Sodano made a public appearance on Easter in St. Peter's Square to speak out explicitly about Benedict's difficulties: "Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment." Maybe he should have kept quiet too.