A Vatican email gap?

For years, Father Joseph F. Wilson studied the U.S. Catholic clergy register, following the career of the priest who once delivered an unforgettable sexuality lecture at the Dallas seminary.

This mid-1980s forum was attended by all diocesan clergy and embraced by the local bishop, Wilson recalled, even though the speaker warned that the Vatican was reining in his ministry to gays. One urgent question from that talk: Did gay Catholics have only three true options - chastity, sin or suicide?

"The issue of gay teen-agers did come up," said Wilson, now a priest in Brooklyn. "He said he would like to discuss how priests can minister to boys in this situation, but that this was not a subject that could be addressed rationally in the church. He said people got too emotional when discussing this kind of subject."

The speaker was Father Paul R. Shanley.

At the time, the Boston "street priest" was a trailblazer in ministry to sexual minorities. Now he stands accused of being a serial child molester and an apologist for man-boy love.

The Shanley story is emerging in waves of legal documents and headlines from Boston to Dallas to San Diego. But, like so many other plot lines in the sex-abuse crisis, it is also unfolding on the Internet. These days, it's hard to ignore the role of email list operators, chat-room masters, "web log" commentators and ordinary Catholics -- with and without collars -- who can click "forward" with a mouse.

Wilson, for example, included his reflections on that long-ago Dallas lecture and a host of other issues in a formal letter to the organization Priests For Life. But the conservative priest also emailed it to a few friends, who sent it to some Internet lists, where it reached activists who posted it on the World Wide Web. And so it goes.

Eventually, Wilson's essay surfaced in a media forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where it was quoted along with coverage from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Commonweal and mainstream sources. This is merely one example of a torrent of digital commentary that is now a normal part of Catholic life behind the scenes.

Designated news media free-for-alls -- such as this week's U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas - will continue to produce policy statements that inspire close scrutiny and responses from Rome. Everyone pays attention when a crisis hits the global networks and newspapers.

But is the Vatican paying attention to the digital chorus?

During an Easter season trip to Rome, journalist and scholar George Weigel said he felt as if he had stepped into a "time warp" as he met Vatican officials who were only then facing revelations and emotions that had rocked American Catholics three to four months earlier.

"People were not sure how much of this was real and how much of it was hype. People were unsure as to how much more was coming," said Weigel, author of "Witness to Hope," the 992-page authorized biography of Pope John Paul II.

Weigel was amazed. Clearly there was some kind of "information gap" between the U.S. Catholic establishment and Rome, he said. Also, the worldly European press had remained silent, perhaps due to a jaded view of American obsessions about sex. But something else was wrong.

"Suddenly it dawned on me that the Vatican is simply not, to this day, a part of the Internet culture," said Weigel. "There are a few people who take the trouble to go online every morning or evening. ... But in the main, what we have become used to and what frames our emotional responses to these questions, namely real-time information and a constant flow of chat, commentary, argument and so forth, ... none of this exists over there."

Wilson, for one, finds it hard to believe that such an "information gap" still exists.

"I know people in Rome have that attitude: We look backward over 2000 years and forward into eternity," he said. "But there are Americans over there who understand what is happening. ... And this information has been sent to Rome for years, by mail, special delivery, telegram, fax, FedEx, Candy-Gram and however Americans choose to deliver information of vital importance."