About that timeline . . .

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates an evening vigil service in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to mark the end of the Church's year of the priest, on June 10, 2010. A year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to root out pedophile priests.Thousands of priest from around the world gathered in St. Peter's square in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal. During the ceremony Pope Benedict XVI strongly defended celibacy for priests but he didn't directly mention the clergy abuse scandal but he referred to what he called 'secondary scandals' that showed 'our own insufficiencies and sins.' PHOTO by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Far and away the best defense of the New York Times article we’ve been discussing comes from Mark Silk, Trinity College professor of religion and public life. Over at Beliefnet, he writes:

[T]he big takeout by Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger in last Friday’s NYT is no hatchet job. It is, by my lights, a piece of balanced, well contextualized reporting that added some essential insider commentary and a couple of very important evidentiary pieces to the jigsaw puzzle being put together to show how the Vatican has handled the sexual abuse scandals of the past quarter-century.

He specifically defends the Times accusation that Benedict clearly had the power to act but failed to do so. He says the critics of the piece don’t really claim otherwise, only defending Ratzinger’s actions in the weakest sense.

He says that much of the confusion over handling of sexual abuse cases during the 1980s and 1990s resulted from uncertainty over which office had responsibility and what to do about the 1983 law enacting a 5-year statute of limitations:

The Times’ revelation that the supposedly new regime put in place by Ratzinger in 2001 was in fact little more than a reassertion of norms set forth in a document quietly promulgated in 1922 and reiterated in 1962 is highly significant. It is now evident that the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)] all along had responsibility for all sexual abuse cases and that there was no statute of limitations.

Right, except that the key phrase is “now evident.” The article itself paints a picture of mass confusion prior to that new regime being put in place in 2001. Anyway, Silk asks if Ratzinger and his staff were aware and if they were aware, why didn’t they inform bishops. He notes that the Times article says that Archbishop Wilson had raised the issue of the 1922 document with the CDF in late 1990s and then goes on:

The critics beat up the Times for pointing out that, under Ratzinger, the CDF was devoting itself to such matters as cracking down on liberation theologians, sorting out marriage annulments, and determining the legitimacy of apparitions of the the Virgin Mary. This, they say, is unwarranted editorializing. But surely it’s important to know what else the CDF had on its plate, and what Ratzinger’s priorities were. Isn’t this the kind of context the lack of which media criticism is always lamenting?

A few points. The first is that the actual timeline of the Times article was a mess. It covers events from the 1980s (e.g. Father Gilbert Gauthe’s 1984 pedophilia trial and the CDF’s denunciations of liberation theology in 1984 and 1986) through the 2000 Vatican meeting with English-speaking bishops. But there are very few dates between. And even those dates are vague. Was Wilson’s “late 1990s” discussion in 1996 or 1999, a year prior to the meeting? The timeline is crucial to the point Silk is analyzing — that the CDF dithered instead of taking decisive action.

The Times article demonstrates that things happened during this period of time — that Crimen Sollicitationis came to light, that a few canon lawyers tried to get movement going in favor of it. Archbishop Wilson says he “stumbled” across it in the early 1990s and “eventually” learned there was debate among canon lawyers as to whether it applied.

Canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi places the discovery of Crimen Sollicitationis around 1994. If that’s true, all of that “context” about 1980s sex crimes and liberation theology is moot. You can’t have debate about whether this gave authority to CDF prior to its discovery, obviously.

A quick sidenote to point out that many people criticized the line about liberation theology because of the way it described liberation theology and its opponents. Let’s look at the line again:

As Father Gauthe was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine.

Sigh. So, again, neither of these things occurred during the time when CDF is alleged to have dithered. And come on — that description of liberation theology couldn’t be more biased. It is simply unfair to say that priests were being disciplined for helping poor people. Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter said it best:

Cardinal Ratzinger did not, in fact, punish liberation theologians “for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed.” He took steps against Liberation Theology because it was built on a faulty anthropology, entailed a materialist analysis of the human person, and reduced the idea of the “Kingdom of God” to a more just earthly regime.

Anyway, let’s get back to the story. What does the timeline look like after 1994? Unfortunately, it’s still really fuzzy. And that’s a shame because I think that’s the best part of the story and could have the potential to be a real bombshell, if reported accurately. We don’t learn anything about when or if the majority of canonists learn of the 1922 statute. We don’t learn when it became a major debate. We don’t learn anything about how the debate proceeded, when it broke into the open or what, if any, role Cardinal Ratzinger played in the debate. We learn nothing about when he became aware of it or what his position was. The only information we have is that the issue was contested for six to seven years before the Pope clarifies matters and that Ratzinger had spoken up in support of the English-speaking bishops in 2000. Everything else is hazy. And for an article that attempts to indict the future Pope as a foot-dragging agent of evil, these are the kinds of details that are key.

Still, I’ll say it again, for a good defense of the Times piece on the merits, you could do much worse than read Silk’s piece.

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  • Peggy

    One question comes to mind for me is how to believe that the denizens of the Vatican, a concentration of highly-intellectual and learned men (and women in many capacities) of the Church, were too dumb to know which congregation, under what procedures, were to deal with abusive priests.

    It’s not clear from the NYT article what tasks the Vatican was to undertake that it did not. Local bishops have pursued cases against abusive priests–only after things got too egregious, regrettably. Does the NYT think local bishops should not? That would really slow down procedures to have them all collected at Rome. I understood that the laicization was the purview of Rome. And that’s fine. The bishop can remove faculties,etc, and cooperate with local authorities as needed. That’s the most important stuff practically speaking,right?

    I really haven’t figured out the big deal with this NYT report. I see it as simply a hit on B16.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    I think the Times could have been a lot clearer in many details, and some of the piece is wild speculation. For instance it says that Ratzinger blocked the laicization of one pedophile priest in the 80′s because of a fear of too many men leaving the priesthood. The priest is not named, but this seems to be a reference to the Fr. Steven Kiesle case in Oakland, on which the Times has based other reporting, with documentation. If this is the case, why not name the priest and provide the link to the sources which the Times published?

    Perhaps the reason is that in that case, it is anything but clear that Ratzinger did anything to block laicization knowing the priest was a pedophile. The “smoking gun” letter was obviously a form letter. It seems that the authors now realizes they didn’t have much of a case there and really hurried over this part. The implication of motives on Ratzinger’s part is once again, speculation.

    Also, the Times said nothing about another much-publicized case that showed Ratzinger’s office being pro-active in urging action in a canonical trial for abuse in Tucson from 1992-97 (although the AP and a Tucson reporter tried to make it look like the opposite). I wrote about both of these cases here:


    Finally a fascinating bit of information from the notorious Father Murphy case – also reported by the Times back in March with extensive documentation. Among the documents was an April 6, 1998 letter from Cardinal Bertone of the CDF to Bishop Raphael Fliss of Superior, WI, which implied that while the “Instructio”(i.e. Crimen Sollicitationis)had ruled that penitents in cases of solicitation in the confessional must make their accusations within 30 days, there was no statute of limitations as to how long after the event a trial could be held. This document shows clearly that the CDF (or at least Bertone) was aware by 1998 that a statue of limitations did not apply and was making use of that knowledge. Why didn’t Ms. Goodstein include this information from her own files?

    All of this already available information would have added immensely to the timeline the authors were trying to construct, but it’s been my impression throughout that Ms. Goodstein, at any rate, has not spent a good deal of time trying to understand the documents and sources.

    If truly intelligent and fair-minded individuals were to research and write this story it would be important and worth reading.

  • Peggy

    Lori: You have done great work! God bless you.

  • Martha

    Before Mr. Silk gets too huffy about annulments, he should consider that many people were waiting years for some kind of decision, and also that the American system of ‘fast-tracking’ which was initially intended as a pastoral response in justice and charity for those left in canonical limbo for years veered too far the other way, becoming a form of “Catholic divorce” and just as great a scandal.

    I suppose the irony here is that, for all the talk of the CDF “it used to be the Inquisition, you know!” and the conclusion that being the Inquistion is not a good thing, this article is demanding that the CDF should indeed have acted more like the Inquisition. Heads I win, tails you lose.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Peggy: Thanks! I guess I should make another blog post of my own out of it – if I have time.

  • Julia

    This is no different than all the arguing we read and hear about Supreme Court cases. There are constant arguments in Federal Courts over State vs Federal jurisdiction in particular cases, and then over the appropriate venue.

    I’m involved in one right now. The issue is – can a Federal District Court in State X compel a non-litigant in State Y (over 500 miles away) to comply with an onerous fishing expedition for 20 year old materials under the Federal discovery rules. I’ve gotten four different answers from the lawyers I know who practice in Federal District Courts.

  • tioedong

    ah, but what is overlooked is that the Vatican might have to decide on laification of priests, but no one was stopping the bishops from putting them away in a monastery where they could harm no one (the traditional “punishment” for sexual sins), reporting the case to the cops, or otherwise stopping these predators.

    Also not investigated: That many bishops were told by lawyers not to report the cases for fear of lawsuit, and by psychologists that it was a lapse that could best be treated by psychotherapy. Check how California decided in the 1970′s and 1980′s to treat sex offenders as outpatients… and the dirty little secret that “progressive” bishops were the most sympathetic in rehabilitating these guys.

    Finally, when the trauma of a court case for victims of pedophilia was worse than the trauma itself, keeping the cases out of court was the norm back then…especially at a time when some very influential in society was justifying sex with early teenagers as good for both parties.

    Yes, it’s easier to blame Ratzinger and the Vatican, just as Obama is “blamed” for the oil spill…as a scapegoat for those with other agendas.

  • TJW

    Mark Silk:
    “…But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction…

    Do the critics claim otherwise? No they don’t.”

    Actually, yes, that’s exactly what they’re claiming. It’s their central argument,

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    When two bills regarding the sexual abuse of minors were before the NY state legislature, the NY Times opposed the bill that would apply to the public schools. It didn’t pass, I believe. Doesn’t that make the NY Times and the NY state legislature TODAY “part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legislative foot-dragging, and outright obstruction…” But who cares about children abused in public schools??? Certainly not the Times. Or most of the media. Or any of the state legislatures which do the bidding of the teacher’s unions
    Should the Catholic Church go backwards and replace its reforms with the very latest policies (or is it non-policies) endorsed by the NY Times for New York public schools???

  • james

    “…the NYTimes opposed the bill that would apply to the public schools.”

    Deacon John M Bresnahan,

    The TIMES protesteth “too much,” to re-hash Shakespeare.
    Most Catholics I know are pleased with the American church’s zero tolerance policy. And they know the pope is moving on the issue overseas (including in countries where the church is attacked and repressed by the gov.)

    With all the other issues facing this county and the world (including, as you point out, the TIMES oppostion to a bill that would appy to abuse in the public schools), the TIMES’ obsession with the pope does arouse suspicion. I agree with Peggy, “seeing it simply as a hit on B16.”