Senior Catholic at odds with Vatican chief over abuse row

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The Independent Online

The Catholic Church in England and Wales issued a rare statement today publicly refuting comments from a senior Vatican official who suggested a link between child abuse and homosexuality.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state and Pope Benedict’s closest ally, caused outrage during a trip to Chile earlier this week when he labelled homosexuality a “pathology” and claimed that there is a “relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia.”

Vatican officials have spent much of the day trying to back peddle away from the comments which have drawn criticism from a variety of groups including gay activists, both liberal and conservative Catholics and even the French foreign ministry.

In a remarkable departure from protocol, a key figure within the Catholic Church in England and Wales also came out publicly against Cardinal Bertone’s comments.

Father Marcus Stock, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales - a key post in the Church - said research showed child sex abuse was "not a question" of sexual orientation.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical data which concludes that sexual orientation is connected to child sexual abuse,” he said in a statement. “The consensus among researchers is that the sexual abuse of children is not a question of sexual 'orientation', whether heterosexual or homosexual, but of a disordered attraction or 'fixation'. In the sexual abuse of children the issue is the sexual fixation of the abusers, and not their sexual orientation."

The fact that the Catholic Church in England and Wales felt compelled to release such a public statement shows how potentially divisive they believe Cardinal Bertone’s comments have been.

The Vatican has come under increasing fire in recent weeks for its handling of both ongoing and historical child abuse scandals which the Pope has publicly dismissed as “petty gossip”.

But Cardinal Bertone’s latest comments have hit a raw nerve even within his own camp of supporters. Conservative Catholic blogs have been bemoaning that the last thing the Vatican now needs is more controversy.

One post on the Italian “Blog of the Friends of Pope Ratzinger” read: "Paedophilia and homosexuality: Bertone trips up - again - on gays." It added that the pope might now have to "clean up the mess made by his right-hand man".

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi issued a statement in which he tried to douse the fire caused by the latest mishap.

He said Church leaders were not trying to make "general affirmations of a specific psychological nature" and offered Church statistics that showed that two-thirds of incidents of abuse of adolescents by priests involved homosexual priests.

But gay rights groups have replied with a plethora of outrage.

“This is a scientific absurdity,” Franco Grillini, a former parliamentarian who was at the vanguard of Italy's gay rights movement, told Reuters earlier today. “The World Health Organisation calls homosexuality a variation of human behaviour. It is paedophilia that is a pathology, a crime, not homosexuality.”

He added: “Because [Vatican officials] have their own problems with the abuse crisis and don't know how to handle it, they are trying to pass their 'cross' from their shoulders on to ours.”

Father Stock’s comments, however, have been welcomed by gay rights campaigners. "I commend the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales for their intelligent, calm and accurate rejection of a causal link between paedophilia and sexual orientation,” Peter Tatchell of the gay campaign group Outrage! “Their measured, non-homophobic tone contrasts sharply with the shrill, scapegoating comments of Cardinal Bertone. The Bishops are right to point out that a propensity to child sex abuse is not based on a person's sexual orientation but on a sexual fixation with young people.”

He added: “The reputation of the Vatican and the Pope has been badly damaged by recent attempts to blame gays, the media and Jews for the public outcry over the sex crimes of Catholic clergy. The response of the English and Welsh Bishops is much more mature and reasoned than the nonsense that has been coming out of the Vatican in the last few weeks.”