Defensive Efforts Prove Offensive


Good Friday comments by Reverend Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal preacher, in which he compared the criticism of the Catholic Church’s handling of the priest abuse scandal to anti-Semitism, have in the words of The New York Times been greeted with “disbelief from victims’ advocates and Jewish groups.”


Taking note of the fact that Easter and the Jewish Passover fell during the same week this year, Cantalamessa said this coincidence of calendar made him think of the Jews. “They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence, and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms.” He then referred to a letter from a “Jewish friend” which attacked the “use of stereotypes” and “collective guilt” in responses to the abuse scandal, which reminded him of “the more shameful aspects of anti- Semitism.”

While Cantalamessa later apologized and indicated his intention was friendly, his method was at best poorly constructed and at worst damaging to Jewish-Catholic relations. In fact, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, a noted bridge-builder between Jewish and Catholic communities, called the comments “unfortunate and reprehensible.”

What is truly shameful is using such methods to defend the Church from issues that bear no relationship to anti-Semitism or the Nazi murder of six million. St. Louisan David Clohessy, head of SNAP (Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests), called comparing criticism of the Church to persecution of the Jews “breathtakingly callous and misguided.” He added, “Men who deliberately and consistently hide child sex crime are in no way victims. And to conflate public scrutiny with horrific violence is about as wrong as wrong can be.”

Cantalamessa’s comparison was also denounced by Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who was host to Benedict XVI at the Rome Great Synagogue in January, and reportedly “laughed in seeming disbelief” when asked about the remarks. He went on to express sadness and hope that further reflection will “illuminate” Vatican leaders.

The fact that a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Cantalamessa’s sermon represented his own views and was not an official Vatican statement, does not forgive Cantalamessa’s scandalous “equation.” Even Lombardo took pains to state that he did not agree with the sentiments expressed by Cantalamessa or those in the letter to which he referred. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison,” he said.

The attempts to minimize fallout from the scandal continue. In Easter Mass, at St Peter’s Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano said, “Holy Father, the people of God are with you and will not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials that sometimes assail the community of believers.” As though public discussion about the extent of abuse and coverup represents “petty gossip”? Hardly.

The Cantalamessa and Sodano comments together suggest that major Church leaders remain intent on deflecting attention from the scandal, even to the extent of seeking sympathy via inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. To attempt to garner empathy in the face of this controversy is one wrong thing; to do so at the expense of relations with another major religion is quite another.

The tragedy of child sexual abuse is of course sadly not limited to the Catholic Church. Indeed, in the last couple years, the screen has been lifted on such conduct within some Jewish communities that traditionally handled these matters in religious courts. Most notably, the Jewish Daily Forward has been active in reporting about these issues, and the New York Times last October reported on the substantial increase in prosecutions for sexual abuse in certain New York area Jewish communities. This kind of progress is essential in moving toward the ultimate goal of eliminating abuse.

Whichever religion or movement is involved, there is no question that hiding sexual abuse from the public is indefensible. And to attempt to avoid responsibility or pacify the public with deflective and inappropriate statements such as those by Cantalamessa is itself seriously shameful. For any institution fraught with an epidemic of ills, the best defense is never to take the offensive; it’s to accept responsibility, show contrition, provide the utmost candor, and demonstrate humility and compassion.

We trust that valuable lessons stem from the unfortunate incident, and that Jewish-Catholic relations can move forward in a constructive manner.