Depending on the subject at hand, the day-to-day running of the worldwide Catholic Church can resemble either a sort of centralized sacred politburo or a loose confederation of autonomous dioceses. If you prefer a business model, it's top-down management vs. franchising. Though imperfect, these analogies can help address a lingering question in the wake of the Los Angeles archdiocese's record $660 million settlement with victims of clergy sex abuse: What is the Vatican's responsibility?
In Los Angeles, as in previous cases in the U.S. and elsewhere, the local diocese has essentially shouldered all of the administrative blame — and taken the financial hit — for the priest perpetrators and the bishops who failed to prevent their crimes, with no reference or responsibility assigned to the hierarchy in Rome. Still, victims' lawsuits frequently cite the Holy See, the Vatican-based juridical headquarters of the 1.1 billion-strong Catholic Church, and the Pope himself.
Since the issue exploded in 2002 with the scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, it has been difficult to force the Vatican to respond directly to the innumerable court cases that have arisen, since, according to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, the Holy See is outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. But two recent cases, in Oregon and Kentucky, have cracked open the door for the first time to the possibility that the Vatican could one day be held financially responsible and officials in Rome could be forced to testify. Lawyers are trying to prove in both cases that the abusive priests can be considered employees of the Holy See. A final decision on whether the Vatican is liable for any monetary damages is probably years away. However, victims' advocates are encouraged that judges in both the Portland and Louisville lawsuits have not tossed out the cases on immunity grounds as had happened in the past.
The question of responsibility extends beyond dollars and cents. Many Catholics believe that officials in Rome bear a significant moral and administrative burden as the leaders of a hierarchy that allowed these predator priests to inflict such damage. They point out that when the Pope wants to impose new rules for the liturgy, rein in theologians or tighten entrance into seminaries, Rome expects those edicts to be fully applied at the local level. And so, they ask, where was the strong hand from above when it came to protecting the most innocent parishioners? If the burden is on the individual bishops, shouldn't some blame extend to the Pope, past or present, who hired each of them for the job?
Going back in time — and indeed some of the cases cited in the Los Angeles archdiocese go back to the first half of the 20th century — it would seem the Vatican does share some responsibility for the way that its clergy are trained, hired and transferred, as well as for the climate of secrecy that allowed many of these criminals to linger. At the same time, individual dioceses do in fact have wide latitude in the daily management of their affairs, with Rome rarely intervening on administrative, financial or pastoral matters.
In more recent times, Rome has had a mixed record in responding to the crisis. Pope John Paul II called an unprecedented meeting in Rome of all the American Cardinals in April 2002 to address the abuse scandal, but was believed to have been largely shielded in his later years from the worst details. His successor has taken a tougher line, and indeed just months before he was elected to be Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote of the "filth" of the Church in apparent reference to the sex scandals. Among the boldest administrative moves of Benedict since his 2005 election was the disciplining last year of Mexico's Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 86-year-old founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, who had long been accused of past sexual abuse.
In some way, the failings of Rome on this front continue to be personified by former Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, 75, who was largely seen as the symbol of the entire American scandal. After repeated calls to Rome to remove him were ignored, Law was finally eased out of the Boston job in December 2002, only to resurface the following year with a prestigious posting in Rome as the archpriest of the historic church of Santa Maria Maggiore. He was last spotted this month at the Fourth of July reception at the palatial Rome residence of Francis Rooney, the American ambassador to the Holy See. The new symbol of the crisis is undoubtedly the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose agreement to the enormous settlement saves him from testifying in court. An Archdiocese lawyer told reporters that Mahony had made several trips to Rome in recent weeks to get the Vatican's support for the deal. The L.A. archdiocese will sell off some of its prized real estate and take out loans to help pay the settlement.
In financial terms, however, headquarters in Rome points out the relative modesty of its resources. According to the Vatican's recently released 2006 budget, annual expenses and revenues are just over $300 million, which includes operations of Vatican City and of the Church's diplomatic corps. The income comes both from individual donations directly to the Pope, called Peter's Pence, which nearly doubled to $102 million last year, and from contributions from dioceses around the world, which take in the vast majority of donated funds from parishioners. Ultimately though, the actual net worth of the worldwide Church, over which the Pope always holds the last word, is indeed vastly greater than the Vatican operating budget would indicate. Indeed, simply weighing the value of certain works of art inside St. Peter's brings estimates to the word "priceless." Another reason, perhaps, why Church officials in Rome don't want to face the potential economic risks of these lawsuits.