Europe Has Problems, But Not Like America's. Maybe.
April 21, 2002
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
New York Times
WHEN seminarians in Poznan told the Polish daily Gazeta
Wyborcza late last year that the local archbishop regularly
made homosexual advances toward them, the paper's editors
It was an explosive story in an intensely Catholic land.
The archbishop, Juliusz Paetz, was an associate of Pope
John Paul II, and one Gazeta reporter said the editors were
afraid of offending advertisers. Whatever the reason, not
until the Warsaw daily Rzeczpospolita broke the news two
months ago did Gazeta publish its own detailed account. In
the uproar that followed, Monseignor Paetz resigned.
Gazeta's skittishness about the story may be extreme. But
it casts light on a striking contrast between the United
States and Europe. While sexual abuse by Catholic priests
has come to light as far afield as Canada, England, France,
Germany, Austria and Poland, only in places like Ireland
and Australia, where the allegations have run into the
thousands, has the scandal generated anything approaching
the unrelenting public concern it has in the United States.
So the question arises: Does the problem not really exist
in most of Europe? Are European priests more repressed?
Does the church here deal with the problem more
For certain, there have been fewer allegations of
pedophilia among priests in most European countries than in
America. But it is impossible to know how much of that is
due to differences in reporting the problem, rather than in
the extent of the problem itself.
Pedophilia, like rape, can confer shame on the victim as
well as the accused. So cultural differences about handling
such shame can account for differences in the numbers of
On the other hand, students of the American church's
history have noted that enthusiasm for entering the
priesthood has fallen off drastically in recent decades,
leading them to think that lower recruitment standards may
allow for the admission of more people susceptible to
In Dublin, The Irish Times suggested in a recent commentary
that Irish Catholic puritanism and clerical
authoritarianism may have left the Irish church, in
particular, feeling invulnerable and unaccountable, opening
the door to abuse. That kind of reasoning is another effort
to account for the high numbers of cases reported in the
United States and Australia, where the Roman Catholic
church has a strong Irish strain, as well as in Ireland
This is not to say the problem does not also exist
elsewhere. In France, 30 priests have been convicted of
sexual abuse since 1995; Britain had 21 such cases from
1995 to 1999, and in Germany, there were 13 in the last
eight years. Yet Peter Wensierski, a religion writer for
the German weekly Der Spiegel, says, "Even if you consider
a certain number of unreported cases, the number is
probably not considerably higher."
Some analysts suggest that Europe's Catholic leaders
reacted more quickly to the problem than did America's.
England's bishops, for instance, issued strict rules two
years ago for dealing with pedophilia that are not unlike
those being discussed only now by America's bishops. In
France, the bishop published a severe formal condemnation
of pedophilia at about the same time.
In addition, many Europeans point to the more litigious
culture and feistier news media across the Atlantic as a
way of accounting for the uproar that reports of pedophilia
"There are different traditions in the media and in the
judiciary in the United States," said Austen Ivereigh,
assistant editor of the British Catholic paper The Tablet.
American news organizations pour larger sums into
investigative reporting than their European counterparts,
he said, and American courts allow the disclosure of
documents that remain confidential in Europe.
Bernard Valadon is president of Bouclier - The Shield - a
French organization that battles pedophilia. In France, he
said, there is cultural resistance in the church, the news
media and in politics to even discussing the question of
pedophilia. "People simply do not want to have to imagine
these things," he said.
VATICAN conservatives go further, arguing that the turmoil
in America stems from a hidden agenda by liberals who want
to parlay the issue into change in crucial areas, like
women's ordination or priestly celibacy. Or, they say, the
outcry is prompted by a desire for material gain.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the assistant to Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal responsible for
handling sexual abuse cases, told the Italian Catholic
monthly 30 Giorni recently of "well-founded suspicions"
that many sexual abuse cases in the United States served
"only to make money through civil litigation."
Such arguments prompt Mr. Valadon to assert that the
Catholic hierarchy has "adopted, globally, an attitude of
negation." Church officials reject such suggestions,
pointing to slow but firm action by the church and strong
legislative and police measures to fight pedophilia in
Yet there is a lingering sense that Europe simply suffers a
time lag. "Generally, we do have a problem, though not on
the scale of the United States," Mr. Ivereigh of The Tablet
said. But that, he added, poses another question: "Will it all be happening in five years' time, in all our