If anyone is reflecting on McCarthyism and
moral panics at the moment, it must be Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, of
Colombia. From 1996 to 2006 he was the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation
for Clergy, a most distinguished gentleman. Back in 2005, when Time magazine
was surveying potential Popes, it
He has gone deep into Colombian jungles to mediate between leftist
guerrillas and right-wing death squads, and once showed up at the house of
cocaine king Pablo Escobar disguised as a milkman. Revealing himself,
Castrillón Hoyos implored Escobar to confess his sins, which, presumably at
some considerable length, the vicious gangster did.
Yet now, even Catholic groups shun
him as if he had been Escobar himself. The cardinal was supposed to have presided
over a Latin Mass at the National Basilica in Washington DC marking the fifth
anniversary of the Pope’s inauguration. At the last minute the organisers
revoked the invitation to preserve “tranquillity and good order”.
Why? Because a French newspaper revealed that
he had written a letter in 2001 praising the decision of a French bishop to go
to jail rather than turn an abusive priest over to the police. “I rejoice
to have a colleague in the episcopate that, in the eyes of history and all the
other bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his
sons and priests,” Castrillón wrote.
That one sentence made him a pariah. Even
Vatican officials have distanced themselves. The official Vatican spokesman, Fr
Federico Lombardi, told the media almost immediately that Castrillon’s letter
offersed “another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the
treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the
clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Priestly sex abuse is such a scourge for
victims and the Church that the inflexible protocols pioneered by Benedict XVI seems
clearly the best one. But Cardinal Castrillon’s angle left room for strictness.
It is a measure of the stifling McCarthyist atmosphere that has developed in
the past two months that none, none, of the journalists who damned Castrillon
quoted his one sentence in context.
For the relationship between priests and
their bishop is not professional but a sacramental relationship which forges
very special bonds of spiritual paternity. The matter was amply taken up again
by the last Council, by the 1971 Synod of Bishops and that of 1991. The bishop has other means of acting, as
the Conference of French Bishops recently restated; but a bishop cannot be
required to make the denunciation himself. In all civilised legal systems
it is acknowledged that close relations have the possibility of not testifying
against a direct relative.
“The bishop has other ways of acting”: in
other words, Castrillon was not saying that bishops should conceal the crimes
of priests, but that they themselves should not hand the offender over to the
authorities. He would probably encourage the victim or the victim’s families to
report the crime.
Is this a realistic policy? Perhaps experience
has showed that it is not, especially with recidivist paedophiles. Perhaps,
too, victims are psychologically incapable of denouncing their tormenter. Perhaps
some bishops would not be courageous enough to engineer a denunciation by a third
party. But that single sentence should not be used to smear a man courageous
and zealous enough to seek the conversion of Colombia’s vilest drug lord.