ROME — Errant priests are dropping like flies in Italy these days. Last weekend, Polish Monsignor Krysztof Charamsa was relieved of his services to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith after a coming-out press conference here in which he nuzzled his boyfriend and announced a pending book deal for his tome outlining the Vatican’s “institutionalized homophobia.”
This week, it’s a 75-year-old parish priest in the northern city of Trento who justified pedophilia by victim-blaming, telling Italy’s La7 television channel that often it is needy children who cause weak priests to succumb to their urges.
“Unfortunately, there are children who seek affection because they don’t get it at home and then if they find some priest he can even give in. I understand this,” the Rev. Gino Flaim said. When the shocked TV reporter asked if he was saying it was the child victims’ fault, he said, “In many cases, yes.” Then he closed the interview by saying that while he somehow understood the cause of sexual violence against minors, he simply couldn’t wrap his head around the phenomenon of gay priests. “Homosexuality, I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s a sickness.”
Flaim’s comments understandably enraged the Vatican, which is in the midst of a crucial summit of bishops that is meant to focus on the woes facing Catholic families—from birth control to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics—but has been largely sidetracked by the issue of same-sex unions and how priests must minister to the LGBT community. Pope Francis has not escaped the mud-slinging, after first admitting to a meeting with gay-marriage opponent Kim Davis on his recent trip to the U.S., which his press machine followed up with the clarification of the meet-up as a “brief encounter” and an announcement that he also had a cordial audience with a longtime friend and his same-sex partner.
The trouble in Trento couldn’t come at a worse time as the Vatican tries to control its message in Rome. The elderly priest was stripped of his duties—but not his collar. On Thursday, Flaim told La Repubblica that he had no idea what he said that was so upsetting. “I said that I understood them, not that I condone them,” he said. “It’s very different.”
That may be, but support groups for victims of clerical sexual abuse say Flaim’s “preposterous and hurtful” comments reflect a commonly held sentiment among the clerical community. “Time and time again, for decades, we’ve seen priests and bishops make this claim,” David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests known as SNAP told The Daily Beast. “Hundreds of clerics have publicly blamed kids for their own victimization. And we suspect that thousands more privately hold these self-serving attitudes but are smart enough to hide their views.”
Clohessy says the Trento diocese’s quick action against Flaim shows the church could move faster on all cases if it wanted to, just as it did with the swift sacking of Charamsa for his revelations that he broke his vows of celibacy by pursuing a relationship. “We’re glad that the Vatican reacted to Father Flaim’s hurtful comments. But he’s less of an aberration than many assume,” Clohessy said. “And wouldn’t it be refreshing to see Catholic officials promptly and harshly punish priests like this who say similarly harmful things in private, instead of acting only when irresponsible behavior and hurtful words emerge in public?”
Most notable is the contrast in the way the church treats its errant priests. In many non-sex-abuse cases, the Vatican has shown itself to be quite nimble when it comes to disciplinary action—at least at the outset. In the case of the Rev. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, who racked up a $42 million bill for new digs at his German parish, the Vatican swiftly removed him from office as a show of resolve to keep the church modest, in line with Pope Francis’s mission to make it a “poor church for the poor.” Never mind that the “Bishop of Bling” now reportedly lives in a penthouse suite near Rome’s tony Piazza Navona and has apparently escaped paying punitive damages for his excesses. “In this case, too, public outrage prompted speedy Vatican discipline against this German prelate,” says Clohessy. “But hundreds of bishops have been publicly exposed as having protected predators, endangered kids, deceiving parishioners, misleading police, destroying evidence, intimidating victims, threatening whistleblowers, and discrediting witnesses and suffer no consequences.”
Father Flaim, who is not accused of sexually harming children, may never preach again, while many of those predatory priests he was referring to remain free to carry on at the pulpit. “Even now, it often takes weeks or months to even get a credibly accused child-molesting cleric suspended from active ministry,” says Clohessy. “But in controversies that do not involve sexual violence or coverups, when high-ranking Catholic officials feel embarrassed or offended, they manage to quickly discipline those they consider wrongdoers.”