Differing papal perspectives

Pope Facing Further Pressure Over Abuse By Priests

We’ve discussed a bit of the European media’s coverage of various Roman Catholic sex scandals. The German press has been working on stories dealing with Pope Benedict XVI’s time there as a diocesan bishop, during which one child-molesting priest was transferred. The news has been terribly sad to read. And the New York Times has also gotten into the fray with some hard-hitting coverage. Here’s Laurie Goodstein’s recent story questioning whether then-Cardinal Ratzinger failed to act with one troublesome case involving untold numbers of deaf children in the scandal-plagued Milwaukee diocese.

I haven’t really highlighted the coverage from the New York Times because I didn’t really have much to say. The piece was well researched and written and I thought that Goodstein was careful to not overhype the links — as some of the press across the pond have been doing and as some folks have been doing in response to her reporting.

Still, some folks have gotten a bit carried away. And it doesn’t seem to be calming down much. Religion News Service‘s lead story right now is “Will the Pope resign?” What can I say about it other than Andrew Sullivan is actually quoted in the piece?

Into this rather emotional fray comes the inestimable John L. Allen, of National Catholic Reporter with some very helpful words for people attempting to understand what is going on with media coverage:

Despite complaints in some quarters that all this is about wounding the pope and/or the church, raising these questions is entirely legitimate. Anyone involved in church leadership at the most senior levels for as long as Benedict XVI inevitably bears some responsibility for the present mess. My newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, today called editorially for full disclosure about the pope’s record on the sexual abuse crisis, and it now seems abundantly clear that only such transparency can resolve the hard questions facing Benedict.

Yet as always, the first casualty of any crisis is perspective.

If you are in any way following this story, I can’t recommend Allen’s piece enough. It is long, but the most informative and balanced essay you can read on the topic. Read it here. He manages to illuminate the controversy without excusing any wrongdoing.

His first point is that the media have inaccurately characterized the role that Ratzinger had in the Vatican. Some have made it seem as if he was the point man for the sex abuse crisis from 1981 until 2005. Allen says that Ratzinger didn’t have any direct responsibility managing the overall Vatican response until four years before he became pope and that the Vatican had a different system for handling cases prior to that:

One certainly can question how Ratzinger’s office handled those exceptional cases, and the record seems painfully slow and ambivalent in comparison with how similar accusations would be dealt with today. Moreover, Ratzinger was a senior Vatican official from 1981 forward, and therefore he shares in the corporate failure in Rome to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis until terribly late in the game.

To suggest, however, that Ratzinger was the Vatican’s “point man” on sex abuse for almost twenty-five years, and to fault him for the mishandling of every case that arose between 1981 and 2001, is misleading. Prior to 2001, Ratzinger had nothing personally to do with the vast majority of sex abuse cases, even the small percentage which wound up in Rome.

Another issue is a 2001 letter dealing with the sex abuse that some in the media are calling a “smoking gun” proving that Ratzinger was trying to hide the problem. Allen says that this interpretation ignores the actual situation in the Vatican:

Far from being seen as part of the problem, at the time it was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse really is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved. Prior to that 2001 motu proprio and Ratzinger’s letter, it wasn’t clear that anyone in Rome acknowledged responsibility for managing the crisis; from that moment forward, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would play the lead role.

The thing is that beginning in 2001, Ratzinger’s job was to review all files on every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world. If I can recommend yet another excellent John L. Allen essay, read this one from last week where he argues that Ratzinger and his staff underwent a “conversion experience” because of this task. Prior to that year, Allen says, he came off as just another cardinal in denial. After that experience, he spoke openly of the “filth” in the church and began prosecuting abusers. It’s a fascinating read.

The final point he talks about is something that was brought up in The New York Times piece as evidence of Ratzinger’s inaction. Here’s how the Times put it:

The Vatican’s inaction is not unusual. Only 20 percent of the 3,000 accused priests whose cases went to the church’s doctrinal office between 2001 and 2010 were given full church trials, and only some of those were defrocked, according to a recent interview in an Italian newspaper with Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the chief internal prosecutor at that office. An additional 10 percent were defrocked immediately. Ten percent left voluntarily. But a majority — 60 percent — faced other “administrative and disciplinary provisions,” Monsignor Scicluna said, like being prohibited from celebrating Mass.

Pope Facing Further Pressure Over Abuse By Priests

Allen says that people who have followed the story closely have the exact opposite impression of “inaction.” He says that American bishops actually hoped to avoid trials altogether. He gives an example of a priest who Archbishop Donald Wuerl, now of Washington, removed following allegations of sexual abuse. The priest appealed, got reinstated and Wuerl had to take the case to Rome himself, eventually prevailing. It worked but many bishops hoped that there could be a better way to handle problem priests without going to canonical trials.

But the American bishops’ proposal against trials ran into opposition in Rome, Allen says, on the grounds that everyone deserves their day in court. However, this view made the Vatican seem more concerned about the rights of priests accused of abuse than victims. So a special commission brokered a compromise where Ratzinger’s shop would decide which cases got full trials on a case-by-case basis. Apparently the fear at the time was that Ratzinger’s office would give all priests trials, delaying closure for victims indefinitely. But in 60 percent of the cases, bishops were authorized to take immediate action:

The fact that only 20 percent of the cases were subjected to full canonical trial has been hailed as a belated grasp in Rome of the need for swift and sure justice, and a victory for the more aggressive American approach to the crisis. It should be noted, too, that bypassing trials has been roundly criticized by some canon lawyers and Vatican officials as a betrayal of the due process safeguards in church law.

Hence to describe that 20 percent figure as a sign of “inaction” cannot help but seem, to anyone who’s been paying attention, rather ironic. In truth, handling 60 percent of the cases through the stroke of a bishop’s pen has, up to now, more often been cited as evidence of exaggerated and draconian action by Ratzinger and his deputies.

If the goal of media coverage of these cases is an improvement in how the Vatican handles the “filth” in the church, Allen’s essay does more to move all sides into a place of informed discussion. Excellent work.

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  • tipi tim

    i’ve been hoping to find some level-headed and insightful coverage. thank you.

  • http://podles.org Lee Podles

    The administrative history of the handling of abuse cases by the Catholic Church is complicated.
    What exactly was the status of various instructions and canon laws? Did they become outmoded or superseded at some point? What was the role of secrecy in the process? If everyone was bound to secrecy, how could abuse be reported to the police or child protection authorities? Why did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith take over all abuse cases?

    What role did the personalities play? Paul VI? John Paul II? Cardinal Sodano?

    The Vatican, in not explaining the complex legal and administrative history, has let misunderstandings become entrenched in news reports, and then the Vatican sees the misunderstandings as evidence of malice.

  • Jonathan

    The RNS story answered the questions I had regarding whether popes do and can resign. The fact that the issue is being discussed–even if it is by a Catholic you apparently don’t agree with like Sullivan–doesn’t mean the question isn’t an interesting one to explore.

    The Allen story is very good, befitting Allen’s insider perspective.

  • Mary

    I really didn’t think the Goldstein NYT piece was well researched. First, it’s rehash information that makes it look like it was just discovered. That made me think it’s a hatchet job. Bishop Weakland is the one that comes across badly – he waited until pressure was on him to take the case to the Vatican but that issue isn’t addressed. We are told the civil authorities dropped the case. We are told that it was taken to the Vatican in 1996 and dropped but we are never told the rules of the Vatican.

    Something else for us all to think about — although some states had mandatory reporting in the sixties, we don’t have a federal mandated reporting law until 1974. Then, it had to be implemented. In the 1970′s we would not necessarily even think that this was a cover up because the law simply was different. Not that it wasn’t illegal – but how we’d interpret reporting behavior would be seen differently. In some ways we are judging 30 years ago with a 2010 mindset and it is different. Nowhere is this discussed. No – that piece was meant to rile the masses to revolt.

    Meanwhile – it defies logic to think that a 2001 policy of the Vatican is behind these abuse cases not being reported. It defies logic to believe a European bishop who says this as these new allegations pop up in light of the American experience. This was a bishops responsibility so yes, if Ratzinger when he was bishop made an error, he is responsible. But Ratzinger as Pope is not responsible for all these other cases to make him the scapegoat because someone has to take responsibility means that there will be no justice and no change. If there is one thing we have learned about the Church – if the bishops don’t want to do what the Pope says – there is nothing the Pope can do about it- but you don’t see that anywhere do you?

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    I agree with Mary and thought the NYT story was horrid. It was misleading , left our crucial facts and unless you clicked over to their documentation page and waded through the documents you could be very misled.

    The Vatican was in effect in a whole scheme of things a very minor actor after being brought in so late and lets face it Weakland was looking for a symbolic gesture as there was a race to do something before the guy died

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The point about not being legally obligated to report many of the crimes is important… but what I don’t grasp is why it was a choice between secular or canon law. If crimes were committed under secular law, surely that’s a case that “render unto Caesar” was made for, no?

  • Jerry

    Thanks for the link to the National Catholic Reporter piece. Between the marginal to bad reporting in most of the media and the reflexive denunciations or defense of the Catholic church and the pope, I felt like I was wading in a swamp. So I really did appreciate that story and appreciate you highlighting it.

  • dalea

    The problem I have with Allen’s reporting is that he uses some terminology from business as if this is an exact analogy to the RC method of operating. I have no real firm idea of how the RCC is set up. It does not issue annual reports nor press releases celebrating changes in departmental organization. Who has called the Pope a point man? Does this term even have a clear reference point in actual Catholic practice? His reporting assumes that the reader has an understanding of Catholic SOP which may not be valid.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    This may sound like a non-journalistic question, but my intention is actual journalistic — concerning the simple label “Catholic.”

    Does anyone know, from Sullivan’s own work, the degree to which he says that he remains a practicing, sacramental Catholic, in the sense of confession and Holy Communion?

  • john

    I find it remarkable that most of the comments here are trying to blame the NYT. There is no doubt some subjectivity to the reporting, but that is only because reporters are people, and obviously have some bias, whether it be conscious or unconscious. The simple fact is the church has been operating outside the law, and this must stop. These cases should have been immediately been turned over to the police or the proper authorities, and investigated and prosecuted just like any other case of sexual assault.

    Whatever the church’s administration’s response to all this is immaterial. They can handle this chronic problem however they choose to as an organization. However if a crime has been committed, then the proper legal authorities need to investigate. If it turns out that church personnel knew about the crime and then attempted to “deal” with it without alerting the authorities, then those people would be guilty of conspiracy.

  • Peter

    Terry, this should shed some light. He is alienated, but does appear to participate in Communion


  • Julia

    Something else for us all to think about — although some states had mandatory reporting in the sixties, we don’t have a federal mandated reporting law until 1974. Then, it had to be implemented. In the 1970’s we would not necessarily even think that this was a cover up because the law simply was different.

    This is extremely important. Before mandatory reporting existed, somebody going to the cops and saying a person was a sexual molester was very easy grounds for a libel suit if it turned out not to be the case. Accusations of a sexual nature are libel per se.

    With mandatory reporting comes whistleblower protection. Those who are demanding that “THE VATICAN” require reporting by 3rd parties to the authorities/cops in places without mandatory reporting don’t know much about law. The Church is a world-wide entity, but Americans sometimes think the whole world operates under our US laws and rules. There are countries where reporting this kind of thing by 3rd parties would not only go nowhere, it could also cause bigger problems.

    what I don’t grasp is why it was a choice between secular or canon law

    It isn’t a choice between secular or canon law. The two are parallel, just like violations of the by-laws of any organization can be used to censure or boot out a member in addition to the behavior possibly being criminal or illegal. Examples are censures of Senators or removal of members of a Board of Directors of a corporation. On the other hand, what might be grounds for removal and the like in a private organization might be different from the legal system’s requirements. Sometimes the same wrong behavior under a group’s by-laws might also be criminal or illegal; other times the legal system doesn’t address the specific situation at all.

    Before 2001, Ratzinger’s department in the Curia was only involved in cases that involved abuse of the confessional. I don’t know of any legal system that addresses a priest’s misuse of the confessional.

    John Allen is refreshingly interested in facts.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering the track record of the NY Times for being anti-Catholic and anti-Ratzinger it is easy to see why many Catholics are convinced some of the latest reporting by Times front page sensational barrages( when compared to Allen’s in-depth looks at all angles) is just more of the same from the Times.

  • http://blog.archny.org/steppingout/ Ed Mechmann

    The problem with the Times’ story is that just flat out failed to do her job.

    This story involves an arcane and specialized subject — Canon Law in general, its penal provisions in particular, and the differing jurisdictions of dioceses, dicasteries and tribunals. When a journalist is doing such a story in virtually any other area, they routinely consult an expert in that arcane and specialized field. Yet in this article, we see that the reporter merely consulted a “Vatican spokesman”, reported second-hand an interview from an Italian newspaper, and quoted no canon lawyers. In fact, there is virtually no discussion of the Canon Law at all in the story. How do you write about a legal proceeding, without presenting or even understanding the proper legal framework and the applicable laws?

    The result is a story that fails to disclose certain important legal realities. Among these were: the lack of jurisdiction by the CDF over most of the offenses committed by the priest, and the fact that the offenses were all beyond the statute of limitations.

    The story accused the CDF of “inaction”, yet the CDF actually did all within its legal authority to permit the prosecution of the few cases that were within its jurisdiction, including the extraordinary step of waiving the statute of limitations. In fact, the waiver of the statute of limitations was not reported in the story at all, even though it was crystal clear in the documents.

    The reporter didn’t even try to understand the Canon Law that applied to the case — apparently didn’t even interview a canon lawyer about the case — so it’s not surprising that she came to the exactly wrong conclusion, and presented misleading and incomplete facts.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Julia, you write, “It isn’t a choice between secular or canon law. The two are parallel, just like violations of the by-laws of any organization can be used to censure or boot out a member in addition to the behavior possibly being criminal or illegal.”

    To tie it into the journalism, the Allen piece says, “In reality, few bishops needed a legal edict from Rome ordering them not to talk publicly about sexual abuse. That was simply the culture of the church at the time…”

    You and I recognize that they are parallel, but the point is the Church apparently didn’t see it that way. They didn’t pursue a case within the Church’s hierarchy and report allegations of crimes to secular authorities. Instead, they chose only the former.

    I mean, imagine a priest is accused of burglary or something. Do Church officials really think they should only defrock the priest, or should they also report the alleged crime to secular authorities for investigation?

    That’s what hasn’t been explained to me, here or in the journalism I’ve seen. I have a strong suspicion that a chunk of it ties into the historical separation between ecclesiastical and secular courts (e.g. the “neck verse”), but I haven’t seen someone knowledgeable write on this, or even be quoted about it.

  • Passing By

    Here’s another rebuttal to the New York Times. Note especially that Goldstein has a history of sympathy toward Weakland, who is rightly called

    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.

    I have also read that the police were involved at sometime but that no charges were filed. Sorry, I can’t find the link right now.

  • Corita Stull

    The Goldstein story made me think about the way that the word “defrocked” is used in the news. It is tossed off in sentences as if it means the same thing as simply being fired.

    Non-Catholics and even many Catholics probably and not have a good grasp of what the priesthood is, and thus what “defrocking” actually means. It is certainly

  • Leo M.

    Molly – thanks for a balanced read. It seems the Pope, who was perhaps the first prominent figure in the Vatican to realize the dimensions of the issue and to abhor it (the ‘filth’ comment, which I’d heard before), now comes under attack. The NYTimes reporting has been equally breathless and irresponsible. The Dowd piece was shameful…but isn’t she always?


  • Jimmy Mac

    ” — a practicing, sacramental Catholic, in the sense of confession and Holy Communion?”

    If “confession” (now called Reconciliation) is a condition of being a practicing, sacramental Catholic, there are very few left.

  • Ed Mechmann

    The priest who presided over the case in Milwaukee has posted his side of the story (here). He notes, significantly, that he was never contacted by any reporter.

  • Julia

    I mean, imagine a priest is accused of burglary or something. Do Church officials really think they should only defrock the priest, or should they also report the alleged crime to secular authorities for investigation?

    There is no requirement for anybody to report burglaries – even if the person’s house was burgled. I know several cases of law office secretaries embezzling money and the cases were settled without involvement of the cops. I also know of a priest and his bookkeeper who got into the collection money and it was handled internally. He wasn’t “de-frocked” but he was in an awful lot of trouble, was removed as pastor of a parish and now is given minor jobs that don’t involve handling money.

    Reporting is only legally mandated (in the US) for things like sex abuse and only certain categories of people are subject to that law. And these requirements are rather recent. Before reporting was mandated, people with only hearsay suspicions of sex abuse or other vile things were subject to libel laws if the charge wasn’t proved. It’s libel per se to publicly accuse someone falsely of a sexually connected crime or bad behavior. Along with mandatory reporting came the protection of whistle-blower laws.

    There is the awful case of Kitty Genovese who was beaten and killed on a busy urban street at night with many people hearing the whole thing. Nobody called the copes. Nobody was charged with any crime. It would be the same today.

    That doesn’t exactly excuse people, but I’m 65 and well remember in my youth that people just didn’t talk about this kind of thing no matter who was involved. And the last person to go to the cops was a young boy and his parents, if he even told them. I was 12 when I first saw the word “rape” in a news report – never on TV. And testifying in court was gruelling for the victim – so there weren’t many prosecutions.

    I’m glad somebody brought up the “de-frocking” issue. A priest can be fired from his job and forbidden to present himself in public as a priest, but he is still a priest unless he is “laicized”, also known as “returned to the lay state”. “Laicizing” was previously very difficult with due process requirements and endless appeals common. Technically, the “laicized” former priest is marked for life with the character of a priest, but he won’t be treated as one by the Church any more.

  • Chairm

    Allegations of criminal behavior are certainly reported to governmental authorities. In addition, the Church may take action within its own bounds. It is not necessarily one or the other, however, given the limitations of secular law, the Church can take swifter action if the facts merit it.

    There will always be some balance between the accuser(s) and the accused, given the principles of due process. That’s not to be minimized in these stories. False accusations can, and do, occur, sadly, even in light of legitimate an urgent concern for actual victims of abuse. Given the current climate, false accusations are probably more likely and that makes handling ALL cases all the more difficult. The Church has enabled small diocese navigate the processes by lending support from larger diocese and elsewhere.

    In the case of Murphy in Wisconsin, the secular authorities took no action after the allegations were brought to their attention. The Church did not stand in the way of legal prosecution — right up to the priest’s death — and did actually pursue a canonical trial which became moot only when the priest died. The victims were helped, not hindered, but perhaps – even likely – not helped enough. We can always do more.

    So, if you know of a crime, you can report it without feeling constrained by the Church. And, indeed, under the new system in place within the Church, credible allegations are reported to secular authorities. In addition other disciplinary actions can, and do, take effect via the Church’s authority.

    The abuse of children is a very high priority. Benedict has moved mountains to entrench that priority in prevention as much as in handling cases.