Thursday, September 16, 2010

Did the Pope Cover Up Abuse? No!

As the pope has taken the center stage in England, people are once again leveling outrageous claims against him personally, namely, that he covered up abuse.

These accusations are not only reprehensible, they are based in either ignorance or duplicity.

Let's talk about what's going on here.

To Be Clear. . .

Before that though, I have to make some remarks upfront. . .

First, I want to be very clear about the fact that I am in no way trying to excuse or mitigate the evil of child rape--indeed, that's what we're talking about here. "Child abuse" is just too much of a nice euphemism. Let's never let the shock and horror of this story be downgraded.

Indeed, I have written on this before so I will not rehash all that I have previously said. Suffice it to say, priests guilty of such crimes are wretched, depraved individuals. They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, receive the harshest penalties allowable. I am a father of two young children myself. I can't even begin to fathom the incredible pain caused by such a betrayal of trust. To be clear then, in no way am I downplaying the horrendous evil that has been perpetuated.

Second, let's just be on record about one other item: most priests are good and holy men who have devoted their life to serving God's people. Indeed, as I've been highlighting here, even the secular press is now beginning to talk about the way priests have been unfairly targeted for abuse allegations. In many ways, such priests are victims in a secondary sense; a shadow of suspicion is allowed to hang over their heads simply by virtue of their state in life. Every accusation is now taken as evidence of misconduct. This is terribly unfair.

Third, although I want to underscore that priests have been wrongfully targeted, it is also true that many bishops horribly mishandled such cases and are guilty of criminal actions. This should not be simply swept under the rug. Those members of the hierarchy who simply looked the other way when abuse took place are also guilty. They too should be dealt and punished depending on their offense.

The question here is whether Pope Benedict--then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger--was involved in a cover-up.

The Case of Father Murphy

In March of this year, The New York Times published a piece, "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys," written by Laurie Goodstein. Goodstein basically indicted the future pope for attempting to protect a priest guilty of abuse. The priest in question was the now infamous Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy, who passed away in 1998. The article explained that Murphy "molested as many as 200 deaf boys".

No one in fact disputes that such crimes took place while Murphy was at St. John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin. He was there between 1950 and 1974. At the time, charges of misconduct leveled against Murphy were not taken seriously by either the school, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (where he was a priest), or even by law enforcement officials.

In 1974, Archbishop William Cousins put Murphy on a "temporary sick leave" from the school. He returned home and lived with his mother. From that time until the time of his death he was never given another priestly assignment. No allegations of abuse ever emerged from 1974 to the time of his death in 1998.

Ratzinger's Role in the Murphy Case

What Goodstein goes on to do however is simply mutilate the facts of the case. Other people have already covered this more extensively, meticulously sorting out the details. Some of the most helpful pieces include, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, "A Response to The New York Times"; Phil Lawler, "The Pope and the Murphy Case: What the New Times Didn't Tell You"; and Michael Sean Winters, "Shame on the The New York Times".

In 1996, Archbishop Weakland, who had been made bishop in 1977, and who had taken no further action against Murphy, wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the curial office Ratzinger was the head of at that time. By this time, all statutes of limitations on sexual abuse--civil as well as canonical (i.e., Church law)--had run out. However, in his letter, Weakland explained that it had become known to him that Murphy had abused his role as a confessor in the sacrament of reconciliation. Because there was no statute of limitations on such abuses, Weakland wrote to the CDF asking for a canonical trial. The CDF, of course, was the body that dealt with abuses against the sacraments. Since Ratzinger was the head of the department, the matter fell under his jurisdiction.

Now, it should be known that the CDF is an extremely busy office. It is a key Vatican curial body. It is ridiculous to imagine that Ratzinger read and saw every letter that came in--and, in fact, there is no evidence that he ever personally reviewed the case. However, Ratzinger's right-hand man, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, who at that time was the Secretary of the CDF, took up the case. He responded to Weakland's letter, agreeing that a canonical trial was in order.

The trial took took place and lasted about a year and a half. Part of the reason the trial took so long was Fr. Murphy's poor health. Recall that Weakland wrote his first letter in 1996 and that Murphy died in 1998. As time went on it became apparent that Murphy's time was running out, at which point Bertone suggested ways of expediting the process of laicizing the priest, i.e., "defrocking" him.

Nowhere is there any evidence that Ratzinger tried to cover-up the case! In fact, if anything, the real outrage should be directed at Archbishop Weakland. Lawler puts it well:
"The correspondence makes it clear that Archbishop Weakland took action not because he wanted to protect the public from an abusive priest, but because he wanted to avoid the huge public outcry that he predicted would emerge if Murphy was not disciplined. In 1996, when the archbishop made that prediction, the public outcry would--and should--have been focused on the Milwaukee archdiocese, if it had materialized. Now, 14 years later, a much more intense public outcry is focused on the Vatican. The anger is justifiable, but it is misdirected."
In sum, the New York Times article--which conveniently came out during Holy Week--is just shoddy-reporting; a hit piece on the pope, which is trying to implicate him in the child abuse scandal.

This was hardly a case of fair and "objective" reporting--something which becomes immediately evident when one reads Fr. Raymond de Souza's article. He notes a number of "irregularities" that suggest the piece was part of a coordinated campaign to bring down Pope Benedict by parties seeking to serve their own purposes. He asks readers to consider the following:
• The New York Times story had two sources. First, lawyers who currently have a civil suit pending against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. One of the lawyers, Jeffrey Anderson, also has cases in the United States Supreme Court pending against the Holy See. He has a direct financial interest in the matter being reported.

• The second source was Archbishop Rembert Weakland, retired archbishop of Milwaukee. He is the most discredited and disgraced bishop in the United States, widely known for mishandling sexual-abuse cases during his tenure, and guilty of using $450,000 of archdiocesan funds to pay hush money to a former homosexual lover who was blackmailing him. Archbishop Weakland had responsibility for the Father Murphy case between 1977 and 1998, when Father Murphy died. He is known to have been embittered that his poor administration of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee earned him the disfavor of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, long before it was revealed that he had used parishioners’ money to pay off his clandestine lover. He is prima facie not a reliable source.

• Laurie Goodstein, the author of the New York Times story, has a recent history with Archbishop Weakland. Last year, upon the release of the disgraced archbishop’s autobiography, she wrote an unusually sympathetic story that buried all the most serious allegations against him (New York Times, May 14, 2009).

• A demonstration took place in Rome on Friday, coinciding with the publication of the New York Times story. One might ask how American activists would happen to be in Rome distributing the very documents referred to that day in the New York Times. The appearance here is one of a coordinated campaign, rather than disinterested reporting.
A Secret Vatican Letter Written By Ratzinger?

Then there is the outrageous claim often circulated on the web that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a secret letter to bishops, which explicitly demanded that that all sexual abuse cases be covered-up. Here's how The Guardian's Tanya Gold put it:
“In May 2001 [the then Cardinal Ratzinger] wrote a confidential letter to Catholic bishops, ordering them not to notify the police – or anyone else – about the allegations, on pain of excommunication.”
Really . . . now come on, people! Get real. Get the facts.

Yes, the future pope did release a document--which was publicly released!--dealing with, among other things, penalties involving sexual abuse of minors. But--and this is important--it in no way ordered bishops to harbor criminals, cover up behavior, or in any resist civil authorities. In fact, far from being soft on such cases, Ratzinger moved for stricter enforcement, for example, extending the statute of limitations on such cases!

Damien Thompson rebutted the charges shorty after Gold's article appeared.

Did the Pope do what Gold charged?
No, he didn’t.
As Archbishop Vincent Nichols pointed out in 2006, when a BBC Panorama documentary made this allegation, the 2001 letter to bishops “clarified the law of the Church, ensuring that the Vatican is informed of every case of child abuse and that each case is dealt with properly.

“This document does not hinder the investigation by civil authorities of allegations of child abuse, nor is it a method of cover-up, as the [BBC] programme persistently claims. In fact it is a measure of the seriousness with which the Vatican views these offences.

“Since 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, took many steps to apply the law of the Church to allegations and offences of child abuse with absolute thoroughness and scruple.”

Gold’s article is also highly selective, not to say misleading, in its presentation of the facts relating to the Church investigation into the scandal surrounding Fr Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel was a favourite of Pope John Paul II, on whose instructions Cardinal Ratzinger closed down an investigation into various allegations. Perhaps he should have refused to obey the Pope – but what Gold fails to mention is that the moment Ratzinger was free to reopen the case (ie, when JPII became mortally ill) he did so, and as Pope sent the dying octagenarian priest into exile while a proper investigation into this massively complicated case began.

It’s nowhere near finished, but Pope Benedict is determined that the truth comes out, even at the price of dismantling the entire order. Quite right: Maciel was a vile piece of work, a seducer of young men and the father of several illegitimate childrn – but even if you think Cardinal Ratzinger colluded in his protection, the awkward fact remains that the Mexican was not, so far as we know, a paedophile [i.e., because his victims were not children but young adults]. A nice distinction? Not in a court of law, which is where The Guardian would end up if it had made these claims about an ordinary individual.

Gold’s attack on Pope Benedict doesn’t read like the work of someone very familiar with the detail of the paedophile scandals. I’d like to know how much research actually went into it. The sad fact is that the upper ranks of the clergy are stuffed with prelates who were complicit in the protection of paedophiles – but the former Cardinal Ratzinger, whose Congregation assumed responsibility for investigating the scandals only at the end of JPII’s pontificate, is not one of them.

On the contrary: Benedict XVI is currently engaged in “purifying” (his word) the Church of the “filth” (his word again) of priestly sex abusers. It’s one of his priorities as Pope. It wasn’t one of John Paul II’s priorities, though it should have been. But he is dead, so Gold goes after his successor, intending to trash his reputation but actually doing serious damage to that of The Guardian.
Easier To Tear Down Than Build Up
The problem nowadays is that any allegation of clergy sexual abuse is taken as evidence of clergy misconduct. Of course, given the fact that bishops like Weakland did little to nothing to stop abusers and in fact did look the other way, it's easy to understand why people would be suspicious of members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nonetheless, that doesn't excuse half-baked allegations. Clearly there are agendas at work in the attempt to indict Pope Benedict in the scandal. Such charges are not based on evidence.

So the next time you hear such scurrilous charges, don't fall for them. This pope really is a good man.


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Thank you for this thorough analysis and references to other articles on this topic.

Viva Red Hood said...

This is disgusting.