Going after Benedict — again

Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of the Vespers mass to celebrate the feast of Saint Peters and Paul in the Saint Paul Outside the Walls basilica in Rome June 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile  (ITALY - Tags: RELIGION)

The New York Times has published yet another massive (4,000 words this time) hit piece on Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s authored by Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger, although it does not read like a normal, hard-news piece by Goodstein, whose work has often been praised here at GetReligion. This flood of digital ink is more of a reported op-ed essay than a news story. Their basic argument is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, does not deserve his reputation as the Vatican insider who did the most to change the way the institution handles sex abuse claims. Let’s start here:

The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church’s credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere

That’s quite the allegation. It stands against almost everything that has been reported on this story, even from some of the best Vatican reporters in the business. So what’s the evidence?

Well, let’s just say there’s a reason it gets buried way down in the piece. First we have seven paragraphs of dramatic claims — such as the paragraph above — and breathless language about “secret meetings” before we get to a quote. And that comes from (wait for it) Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of the Sydney, Australia archdiocese. Now, I’m by no means saying he shouldn’t be quoted, but he’s more than just “outspoken” as the Times describes him. Australian bishops have basically gone so far as to warn the public about doctrinal difficulties he’s had with the church, including “the nature of Tradition, the inspiration of the Holy Scripture, the infallibility of the Councils and the Pope, the authority of the Creeds, the nature of the ministerial priesthood and central elements of the Church’s moral teaching.”

Anyway, I think he’s the first person quoted because all of the other people quoted have very nuanced quotes explaining the complexity of what was going on. I mean, apart from the dramatic set-up and a bit of hearsay, the claims of the piece come nowhere near being proven. Even Robinson’s last quote is to say that Ratzinger was “extraordinarily supportive of what we were doing” to combat child abuse.

Okay, so what about the claim that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been given authority over abuse cases in 1922 and that Benedict was willfully ignoring that as the church fell apart? Honestly, we never really get to any smoking gun. After 40-some paragraphs, this is the closest, I guess. It is dealing with a 2000 “secret” meeting:

Archbishop Wilson said in an interview that during the session he had to call Vatican officials’ attention to long-ignored papal instructions, dating from 1922, and reissued in 1962, that gave Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, sole responsibility for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses: solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.

Archbishop [Philip Edward Wilson of Adelaide, Australia,] said he had stumbled across the old instructions as a canon law student in the early 1990s. And he eventually learned that canonists were deeply divided on whether the old instructions or the 1983 canon law — which were at odds on major points — should hold sway.

If the old instructions had prevailed, then there would be no cause for confusion among bishops across the globe: all sexual abuse cases would fall under Cardinal Ratzinger’s jurisdiction.

Okay, so we learn that there’s all sorts of confusion between these different instructions. There are quotes from canon lawyers saying that the situation was a mess. But long story short is that a year after this meeting Pope John Paul II issued a letter clarifying the matter. It dictated that all cases of sexual abuse by priests should now be handled by Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. At the same time that happened, Ratzinger put out a document saying that the 1922 and 1962 instructions that gave his office authority over sexual abuse by priests cases were “in force until now.”

And then there are a bunch of quotes from people debating precisely what that meant and why he did it. I can actually think of a few reasons that aren’t mentioned, too. No one is in agreement and there are a lot of quotes such as “There was confusion everywhere.”

And. That. Is. It. So what’s up with the incendiary lede and 4,000 words of conjecture? I honestly don’t know.

It’s really disappointing, actually. The language is just so loaded and while all the quotes seem generally supportive of Ratzinger, even if critical of the mess of the Vatican’s legal system, the story relentlessly spins it against Ratzinger. For a random example of this, let’s look first at the incredible language the Times uses to describe its own view of Ratzinger:

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

And yet look at how the views of Archbishop Wilson — the hero of the previous excerpt — are presented in their setup:

An exception to the prevailing attitude, several participants recalled, was Cardinal Ratzinger. He attended the sessions only intermittently and seldom spoke up. But in his only extended remarks, he made clear that he saw things differently from others in the Curia.

“The speech he gave was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly,” recalled Archbishop Wilson of Australia, who was at the meeting in 2000. “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward.”

Even so, the meeting served as much to expose Cardinal Ratzinger’s inattention to the problem as it did to showcase his new attitude.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 72, is the vice-dean of the College of Cardinals and was once archbishop of Munich. Known as 'the Panzer Cardinal,' the conservative Ratzinger is powerful in the Vatican but may be too close to the pope for the cardinals' taste. While there is no official talk at the Vatican about who will succeed the ailing Pope John Paul II, several potential candidates have emerged--including Ratzinger. (Photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Getty Images)

It would be funny if the situation weren’t so serious. At another point, the story tries to point out how Ratzinger cared more about doctrine than priest abuse by saying:

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.

Ah yes, the whole Liberation Theology debacle really was about the Vatican hating poor and oppressed people, wasn’t it? And how dare the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office be so concerned about doctrine?

It just reads like a hit piece and I’m truly disappointed in it. And not just because I so admire Goodstein’s body of work. A piece of this length with that kind of absolutely inflammatory lede better back it up well. It doesn’t even come close. In no way did the story live up to its big-talking promises at the beginning. And that’s because the reporting didn’t support those claims.

This could have been an illuminating story about how dysfunctional the Vatican is or how confusing it can be when you have competing statutes in canon law. All of that is newsworthy and valid. There are plenty of Catholic scandals to report on. And the desire to advance the story by connecting it to the Vatican is fine, even if the complete lack of context in these stories is unfortunate. But no matter how much you want to have a hot story, you can’t let accurate reporting become a casualty.

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  • Ed Mechmann

    The “Ratzinger is an evil obstructionist” theme has become the Times’ version of the birther theory — a deeply held belief that true believers are desperately trying to will into existence because of their hostility to the target, despite an utter lack of factual support.

  • Julia

    Do the writers not know that Ratzinger’s job was the doctrinal aspect of that office? He’s not a canon lawyer.
    It was understood at the time that his office dealt only with the crime of “solicitation”, abusing the sacrament of penance, in order to commit and cover up sexual offences with the penitent? And that it was his canon lawyer 2nd in command who dealt with those cases until he pushed for his office to take over all sex abuse cases?

    It’s still not clear that a directive dating from the 1920s and re-stated in the 1960s still held water in the 2000s. I haven’t read the entire document addressing that issues, but why would it have been a theologian’s job to sort out complicated canon law issues on jurisdiction? There’s a lot going on here that isn’t reported.

    And why is it that Americans think a global organization should be set up just to please the American sense of what is appropriate? In particular the notion that the Pope should decree that all bishops everywhere in the world should turn over their priests to law enforcement for any and all accusations? How is this going to work in Saudi Arabia or China or North Korea or China or Turkey?

    It appears there are some folks behind the scenes here feeding these reporters. They snuck in a very few one-line comments from non-progressive to look like they are balanced, but it doesn’t work. They should study John Allen who is the epitome of non-sensationalism.

    Perhaps these writers are attempting to replace Ruth Gledhill of the Times of London now that she is ensconced behind a paywall. They sure are sounding like her.

  • Richard

    Normally, the Times itself and more liberal Catholics are very quick to argue for more autonomy on behalf of dioceses and the bishops who head them. That is, when it is convenient. That is, when they are heterodox. Missing from the piece at all is the fact that bishops, including Wilson, had every ecclesiastical power and ability to deal with abusers *without* the Vatican, at any time they wished. Nothing was stopping them. They had the power. They failed. So now the buck is passed and the Times is too willing to give a voice to the complaint and give the local ordinaries a pass.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Wow. Check out what Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter had to say about this Times article:

    This morning’s New York Times “expose” regarding then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s role in the Vatican’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis exposes more than it intended. It exposes the fact that the authors, Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger, and their editors, do not understand what they are talking about and, at times, put forward such an unrelentingly tendentious report, it is difficult to attribute it to anything less than animus.

  • Martha

    Hey, “New York Times” reporters, ever heard of a little thing called Vatican II? *Everything* was changed after that; the 1962 norms were overhauled all over the place.

    Is anyone surprised that lawyers – even canon lawyers – would be arguing whether the old norms or the new ones applied, and in which cases, and who gets to decide anyway?

    I think this just reflects the attitude – which I’ve encountered online elsewhere – that canon law has nothing to do with it and that the only job of the responsible dicastery is to hand over accused to the civil authorities.

    The idea that, apart from the criminal action, there is a particular spiritual penalty incurred precisely because of the nature of the priesthood is rejected as an attempt to cover up or protect abusers by not having them civilly prosecuted. Same way with the demands for “defrocking” which seem to be confusing removal from ministry with demotion from the priestly state. No realisation that even laicisation cannot reverse the sacrament of ordination and that all it does is remove licit permission to exercise the priestly ministry, not the ability to do so.

  • Dolly

    The NY Times is well aware that all they have to do is get through the first four paragraphs, and they’re readers will put the paper down, thinking they have the whole story. This hit piece is 4,000 words long. They know no one will read it, so they bury the facts deep within, and let the inflammatory allegations fly. It’s pretty disgraceful, and I am fed up with Goodstein, whose work I used to admire a lot.

  • Julia

    Martha said:

    The idea that, apart from the criminal action, there is a particular spiritual penalty incurred precisely because of the nature of the priesthood is rejected as an attempt to cover up or protect abusers by not having them civilly prosecuted.

    This is a very good point.
    Why is it so heard to understand?

    If a US Senator is in trouble for some criminal matter, the Senate still has to deal with the Senator’s standing in the Senate. Should he be censured? Should he be fined? Should he lose his committee appointments? Should he be expelled? Those are issues that must be dealt with even if the cops are on the case, and the Senate has its internal rules of conduct and procedures dealing with those matters.

    The Senate’s internal policies about its members misbehavior does not preclude law enforcement doing its job.

    Same with priests and the church’s internal rules. In fact, I believe canon law refers to its canonical procedures as the “internal forum”.

    The NCR piece was particularly apt is using “Law and Order” as an example of legal arguments and niceties concerning jurisdiction and the meaning of statutes.

  • Bill P

    So what’s up with the incendiary lede and 4,000 words of conjecture? I honestly don’t know.

    First off: THANK YOU for an overall excellent post. It will be a good resource to share.

    Here’s my quibble: Why must we all pretend that there is no grey lady elephant in the room? The NYT, as well as many in the AP and other media outlets, have declared war on the Roman Catholic Church—as well as any faith or ideology that does not support same-sex marriage, a female priesthood, abortion on demand, or other core beliefs of the Progressive gospel. (This can be true of those on the far right, too.)

    Yes, there will always be the need to correct well-meaning reporters who are too busy covering five or more stories a day on varying topics. But this NYT story does not belong in that category.

    This story is part of a loosely organized (or well orchestrated?) movement to discredit the Church. This piece is not reporting—nor does it mean to be. It is punishment. Worse, such ongoing carpet bombing will only escalate, especially if we who know better choose to cover our eyes and do nothing.

    Yes, this is war, folks. And while the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, many a soul will ignore “irrelevant” Church teachings because of what they read in the paper.


  • Passing By

    It’s a witchhunt, people. At any moment, Maureen Dowd will be heard to shriek: I saw Cardinal Ratzinger with the devil!, and then the script will be complete.

    The real story is the failure of law enforcement to properly prosecute the cases brought to them. If they cared about children, that’s what they would be reporting!

    It is entertaining, though, since from their obsession, the NYT really does believe the Catholic Church is the One True Church, and hence, their greatest enemy.

  • Dan

    I’m zero surprised. This has been going on for decades now. True, the NYT has overplayed its hand a bit this time, but only the blind could not have noticed the paper’s longstanding anti-Catholicism.

    Part of the sadness of all this is that Joseph Ratzinger is truly a great man. Having read nearly two dozen of his books and watched him over the years, I feel I know him well. He is more than just a great scholar. He is also deeply conscientious, courageous and holy. Evil attacks good. That’s the only way I can understand the NYT’s coverage.

  • Dan Crawford

    The Times is a disgrace – its editors will publish anything that uncritically examines euthanasia, abortion, gay and transvestite “life styles”, and religion. Their stories give every evidence that their reporters and editors are either ignorant, lazy, biased or propagandists – often they manage to combine all these elements into one article. I even distrust what the publishes about sports. As for their entertainment “critics”, I don’t even bother to go there.

  • Martha

    Ah, I don’t know if the “New York Times” is the AntiChrist; certainly it probably has a particular world view and definitely it’s making hay out of the scandal, but then again, it’s a newspaper and given a juicy story like this, of course it’s going to keep flogging that particular equine. Any paper is going to milk a big newsworthy scandal for all it’s worth, whether political or religious or financial.

    And by comparison, they’re not the worst; supposedly Peter Tatchell has been commissioned by Channel 4 to make a documentary in advance of the Papal Visit to Britain, and three guesses what that’s going to be like – he’s described the Pope as “the ideological inheritor of Nazi homophobia” (as distinct from other forms of homophobia, I suppose) which is not at all exaggerated or over the top (link courtesy of “Whispers in the Loggia”):


    I’ll be curious to see who’s the first person to link Global Warming with Secret Vatican Jesuit Opus Dei Pope Plots. I mean, that’s about the only thing Benedict XVI hasn’t been accused of yet, in his busy schedule of causing mass deaths in Africa due to condom bans, oppressing women, being a homophobe, and rehabilitating Holocaust deniers. I guess with all those on his plate, it’s just not quite possible to fit in slaughtering polar bears by destroying the Polar ice caps as well.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt
  • Passing By

    I’m calmer now.

    To build on Mollie’s comment about no shortage of real scandal reporting, there’s Belgium.There may actually be a story that affects the welfare of children, but a connection to the pope might be tenuous.

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    The problem with the Belgium story is that Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a very well-known and widely-praised progressive pooh-bah at the Vatican II Council and keeper of its flame since, is at the center of the scandal.

    The Belgian cops are even drilling into the tombs of deceased Cardinals in the Cathedral’s undercroft. Current high level clerics were detained for an entire day to keep them out of the way.

    I got this Brussels link from the Times of London – it’s not a tabloid-like site. The article is written by a Belgian legislator. Why isn’t this juicy story about, among other things, an absolutely shocking Belgian catechism the focus of a page one story??


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Gee! A bureaucracy that doesn’t function efficiently enough. Reads like the Gulf crisis under Obama and Katrina under Bush. Good excuse to do a hatchet job on the pope who the Times has always hated for not being the radical pope this story advertises that the Times is determined to get.

  • CV

    It all sounds very defensive to me.

    The writers may have been stung by the many (very legitimate) critiques of the quality of the journalism in the series of articles that ran in Lent. They couldn’t help but notice that the articles sparked another bonfire.

    Now we have a 4,000 word treatise in which Goodstein attempts to prove that she was “right all along” about the pope. And she fails again, spectacularly, not that the average NYT reader will notice this.

  • Dan

    Echoing CV, remember when the papal scandal was supposed to be the cases in Wisconsin and Munich (and stabs were also made based on cases in Oakland and Arizona)? None of that stuck, and so the NYT has reloaded and shot again — and has missed again by a wide margin. Judging from the unanimously negative verdict on this all over the Internet, it appears that NYT is now beginning to shoot itself in the foot.

  • http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/articles-of-faith/ Ruth Gledhill

    Thank you for this Mollie I have just linked to it my latest blog which is as you know behind a paywall. Ref the paywall, I am sorry about it, we all are, but it is necessary. I just posted this on Facebook:
    I understand how everyone feels but you also have to try and see it from our perspective. Even if only ten or five per cent of our present readers subscribe, according to reports I’ve seen on the web, we still make millions of pounds to offset our massive losses. We just cannot sustain the losses we have been taking, no organisation could. Other papers are in similar difficulty. Yes the web should be free but why should its products be? Google makes its money by giving away what other people put a lot of resources into creating. No-one would think that ok if it was music, or the kinds of goods that sell on eBay. None thinks everything on eBay should be free. Of course I see as well as anyone else how the present situation has built up and why people now think news should be free but it just can’t be unless another financial model is found somehow. News just costs too much to produce.

  • sassenach49

    What a shame such fine Christians still don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the abuse victims.

  • Bill

    I’m afraid Dolly (#6) is right. People will read the lede and skip the article. The accusation is the proof. Even if the 4,000 words are merely smoke, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Repeat as needed. The Times cares not a whit about criticism. It knows its strategy working. The pope has been convicted by the sheer weight of ink. What further proof is needed? Frankly, I can no longer read the NYT. I feel its spittle on my face on every page.

  • Bill P.

    sassenach49 wrote: What a shame such fine Christians still don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the abuse victims.

    Criticism of bad journalism does not imply giving a pass to criminal or immoral activity. I have seen firsthand how this abuse has ruined lives and families; I am not about to ignore what happened.

    But bad, biased journalism eventually shifts attention away from victims and the root causes of such crimes, and it ignores those many other victims of sexual abuse who were attacked by anyone other than Roman Catholic clergy.

    Our unending prayers, love and support must always be with all victims. At the same time, it is in everyone’s best interest that we demand good work from sound, professional journalists.

  • Dale

    I ran across this article in Der Spiegel about child sexual abuse in Germany: The Sexual Revolution and Children: How the Left Took Things Too Far. Warning: it contains graphic and disturbing descriptions of child sexual abuse at “progressive” child care centers during the late ’60s and early ’70s, part of the German left’s attempt to indoctrinate children into uninhibited sexuality.

    One of the prominent members of the Green Party, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, wrote a memoir, a portion of which recounts his own sexual encounters with children in a day care center.

    It’s interesting to note the difference in coverage between that and allegations against Catholic clergy. The double standard is quite evident. Why is there no public disclosure of all the parents (mostly academics, journalists and university employees) who engaged in the abuse?

    There’s a laughable distinction offered by one of the leftists: that it was “objectively, but not subjectively” child abuse; in other words, since the perpetrators thought they were helping the development of their children, it is more morally defensible than an adult doing the same things for his or her own sexual pleasure. Of course, that’s a defense typically offered by pederasts.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    How does having inaccurate information about policies and procedures work out to caring more about abuse victims?

    Journalism should inform and be accurate — in service of victims everywhere.

  • michael gonyea

    When I would complain that the Church seems to be stuck in the past, my mother would respond by saying: “The Church moves slowly, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” She was right of course. Truth is not relative, and humankind evolves very slowly. This time however the issue is moral as opposed to doctrinal, and there is considerable evidence that the Church swept abuse issues under the rug. The failure of the CDF, and John Paul II, to address the abuse issue in a timely fashion was reported accurately by the Times. Understanding who knew what and when, as Jack McCoy would no doubt agree, is essential to determining innocence or guilt.

  • michael gonyea

    I pray daily for each and everyone.

  • Julia

    The failure of the CDF, and John Paul II, to address the abuse issue in a timely fashion was reported accurately by the Times. Understanding who knew what and when, as Jack McCoy would no doubt agree, is essential to determining innocence or guilt.

    It may be useful to figure out who knew what and when, but the focus of this post is the inaccuracies in the NYT article regarding the lines of responsibility and who had the jurisdiction and authority to do what and when. That is even more important to resolving the issues.

    One thing that is being missed in all this is the current generation’s reliance on and expectation of immediate communication. This was not in existence in prior generations.

    I lived in Parish in the early 1960s and in Korea in 1970. In both situations I communicated with folks back home by the mail which was often slow. Inter-continental phone calls were rare, very expensive and often impossible to clearly hear what was being said. There was no e-mail much less FAX’s or websites to share information with family, friends or colleagues. I don’t think FAX’s started being available until the 1980s.

    With rare exceptions governance of dioceses was left to the local bishops. Doctrine and liturgy was the focus of the Church at Rome. Why is this so hard to grasp? It’s a big world out there.

    The only thing that was stymied in Rome was laicizing of errant priests – the dispensing of vows. Everything else was in the bishops’ authority, including revoking the “faculties” necessary to function and present oneself as a priest.

  • Julia

    That was “Paris” and not “Parish”.

    Another issue I don’t see addressed is the situation with religious orders like the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, etc. These priests and brothers are in a murky situation as far as the authority of the local bishops is concerned.

    The recent blow-up in Memphis involved a religious order priest who had been moved to Memphis from the Caribbean by the head of the order. But it’s the local bishop who was held to account by the courts.

    I don’t have a link, but it’s a fact that the organization of the heads of male religious organizations has not signed on to the US Bishops agreement on safeguarding children. So it only governs dioceses and not the non-diocesan priests, abbots, etc. I’m not sure, but I think the sisters’ leadership haven’t signed on, either. I’m ready to be contradicted on that.

  • Julia

    Correction on the Memphis story.

    The priest in question was a Dominican, but he was hired by the bishop for diocesan work; the bishop should have and could have checked him out and canceled the contract. However, it’s still a fact that it is/was much easier for the Dominicans to move this guy around.


    [Disclosure: the reporter is my brother.]

  • Passing By

    Stephen Kiesle, the priest in Oakland who was the center of the NYT obsession (one of them), was defrocked in 1987 and convicted in 2004 of molesting a child in 1995. Here’s the timeline on that case. So that laicization thing really protects children, doesn’t it?

    There are two stories in the Oakland case that actually affect the welfare of children: 1.) two little boys were tied up and molested, but Kiesle was convicted of misdemeanor lewd conduct, and 2.)the man slipped back into volunteer parish work (in a lay role) after being removed from ministry. It’s impossible to believe child welfare concerns a newspaper that obsesses on an irrelevant factor.

    First Things blog has another takedown of the Goodstein/Halbfinger fraud. Actually, two, but the second is mainly a link to the NCR take down already linked.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    No 20: Sassanach

    And what does your comment have to do with journalism and the facts of MZ’s post?

  • michael gonyea

    Julia–Perhaps the focus of this discussion is not just the NYT article, but the moral failures of JP2 and B16. And you are off point.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Since the instructions would have been in Latin, what was the Latin word and what does it mean. Pedophilia does not describe most of the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Most of it is homosexual relations between adult males and sexually, that is in a physical sense, mature minors.

    Other forms of abuse are between Catholic priests and sexually mature minor girls. What is ignored is that solicitation of sex from adult females even in the confessional is not illegal. There are good arguments that any sexual relations between a priest and one of his parishioners would be abusive.

    Another thing the Times ignores is that Ratzinger was a theologian not a canon lawyer. His specialty was taking down the likes of Geoffrey Robinson who taught what he viewed as heresies. He generally seems to have had underlings deal with those parts of the office not directly related to heresy, at least until he got the clear green-light to take down sex abusers of minors, when he seems to have focused heavily on this matter.

    Catholic Cannon law is so complex that only those who have studied it in great deal really understand it. The distinction between theologians and canon lawyers, and the fact that the Catholic Church has at least as much specialization of inquiry as society in general make the whole premise that Ratzinger ought to have understood the whole power and position of his office very false.

    The fact that Catholic dioceses have been attacked for applying the same generalized rules of need to prove guilt in deciding to remove priests as are used in US courts of law makes the whole project of attacking the Catholic Church on this matter suspect.

  • Ben

    The top of the story may not have been paid off in the details but the Times story does tell us a few things worthy of note:

    1) Bishops from around the world had reached a breaking point of frustration with Rome’s lack of action.

    2) That frustration centered around the defrocking process, which tells me that these bishops shared the public’s common sense notion of defrocking as punishment.

    3) Previous defenses of Rome’s lack of action relied on canon law, which journalists were upbraided for not understanding. Now we learn that the Vatican itself didn’t understand canon law — or at least which one was operative. And I have to say it’s a little cheeky to now say “but it was from 1922″ when, again, journalists are constantly upbraided for not “getting” that it’s an institution that’s 2000 years old and things happen with a much longer time frame in mind.

  • Passing By

    Upon review, it’s not clear that my #30 was written to show how in the obsession with the pope, real stories affecting the welfare of children are missed.

    Sorry for making myself clear.

  • Susan Gallagher

    The NYT provides insight into the Church’s failure to address thousands of cases of child molestation, and Catholics respond that the media is out to get the Pope. Do these zealots believe that this world-wide crime wave should remain under wraps? To pretend in the face of revelations of thousands of crimes against children that Ratzinger and the rest of the hierarchy somehow did all they could is just senseless. After all, the Church did not ignore the crime wave: it spent millions on confidentiality agreements, moved predators from parish to parish, and made a massive effort to maintain secrecy. Thanks to the NYT, we now have a better understanding of how this global tragedy unfolded. And we have occasion to wonder once again how any honest spiritual seeker could maintain faith in such an obviously sick system. Catholics, do you really believe that looking away from so much evil will help you get into heaven? Can you pretend that the hierarchy was somehow hamstrung when it came to protecting children but still invested with miraculous power?

  • Julie

    Susan Gallagher illustrates the problem that I have with anti-Catholics: their extreme lack of logic. She pretends here that Catholics believe that looking away from criminals inside our church will save us. That is a ridiculous statement. The fact is, Jesus founded a church, a church, not an invisible body of believers. He knows the nature of humans, yet left His Church with us. The Church has always battled corruption from within and attacks from without. There have always been bad and sick people who get in and take advantage. It is not a sick system. If so, you would have to say the Protestant churches are sick. The insurance companies report that pedophile abuse by clergy is a bigger problem in the Protestant churches. How do they handle the problem? I receive an incredible amount of grace and joy in the Catholic Church. I have an access to the real presence, an encounter you cannot imagine until you experience it. Our Catholic Church was not set up as an agency to deal with criminals in an efficient manner. Churches generally are not. Yet the numbers now say the Catholic Church in this country is presently the safest place for children because of all the safeguards in place. We are human Susan, and so are the hierarchy.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    I don’t know what’s more depressing … the NYT article or the fact that most if the commenters at National Catholic Reporter thought it was great stuff and attacked Michael Sean Winters for exposing some of its factual and moral shoddiness.

  • Julia

    2) That frustration centered around the defrocking process, which tells me that these bishops shared the public’s common sense notion of defrocking as punishment.

    The problem here is the news media’s (and others’)use of a slang term – “defrocking”. What does that mean? Does it mean
    1) removing somebody from ministry or
    2) releasing a priest from his vows?
    Who has the authority to do these two very different things?

    Is it removing somebody from ministry includes forbidding the priest to say Mass, to perform any sacraments, to dress as or present himself as a priest. That sounds like “defrocking”. It may be temporary or permanent. I gather most people think it means just removing somebody from their current parish job. Any bishop can remove one of his priests from ministry. There were some problems when a very few priests availed themselves of the appeals process that slowed down finality. That might have been what needed clearing up.

    Or is it “laicization”, freeing a priest from his vows? This can only be done at the Vatican; it frees the guy to get married. It might or might not also free the diocese from the obligation to pay retirement monies – I don’t know about that. It can be seen as a public rebuke, but more often it’s something the priest himself wants. Perhaps people are looking for some public ceremony of humiliation like in the movie “The Three Feathers”.

    People have read too many books and news articles portraying “the Vatican” as a monolithic despotism that monitors all Catholics around the world. There are many more Catholics than US citizens & the FBI can’t keep track of all the doings of Americans and we wouldn’t want it to. How would the Pope be able to do that? Should he?

    The Pope has no jails or cops and governments won’t enforce canonical rulings. So I don’t understand this popular concept of “defrocking” as a useful punishment. A bad guy is going to ignore it. There are people claiming to be priests in good standing and acting as such in spite of being formally removed from ministry or even laicized.

    Seems to me that bishops got frustrated trying to get priests “laicized” because they were being hectored and pushed by folks who thought they were pushing for “de-frocking”. When people are angry, they often don’t listen to or comprehend logic.

    The meaning and consequences of legal authority and procedures are argued every day in every courthouse in the US. Why does anybody suppose there wouldn’t be arguments about canon law as well?

  • Ben

    Julia — Good point, once I hit send I realized later that I should have used the more precise “laicization” term. I understand your arguments about how it could be safer to keep predator priests as priests. But I still think the cultural norms surrounding punishment in our society means exclusion from membership so you will have to forgive people — including the bishops it seems — for expecting that in this case too.

  • sassenach49

    tmatt said: No 20 sassenach And what does your comment have to do with journalism and the facts of MZ’s post?

    Yes, my comment was an aside. My point, is that good or bad journalism, the concern if not obsession for you all is the good name of your churches and leadership. Fine.

    Have any of your churches/parishes offered meeting space for support groups for survivors of clergy sexual abuse? Have any of your churches offered a service of healing, apology and reparation for survivors? Or hosted a forum for survivors to share their stories?

    Feel free to score points at poor NYT journalism, or my desperate comment. I simply don’t understand why sincere Catholic & Orthodox Christians are and remain indifferent at best, to survivors.

    If you don’t really give a damn, I guess your Christ doesn’t, either.

    parent-member of SNAP

  • Julia


    cultural norms surrounding punishment in our society means exclusion from membership

    But we’re talking about a billion-member, world-wide organization. US Catholics are a small fraction of that number – why should our sensibilities be the rule for the whole world?

    By the way note the article linked by CourageMan in the subsequent thread on this topic.


    Not two days after one MSM outlet tells how Rome is bad for being too legally fastidious about defrocking priests, another MSM outlet tells how US dioceses are bad for defrocking too many priests, rather than keeping them on the rolls and supervising them.

    The Church can’t win. It will be blamed no matter what it


  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    If you really want an answer, Sassenach49 …

    It is because some sex-abuse victims, and SNAP as an institution, think their victimhood gives them a moral high ground from which truth, logic and justice for others are mere pettifogging.

    Your last note is a perfect example of it. What difference would a “yes” or “no” answer to your litany of rhetorical questions make to the issues that this post raises and which is the central clearly-stated concern of this site — reporting on religion. “I am a victim, it was awful isn’t the answer to every question.

  • Ben

    But, Julia, it’s not just American cultural norms. According to the Times report, concerned bishops flew in from Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and the West Indies. And I suspect these countries are on the list because these are the places the scandal first went public. Which is why I call it common sense perception of justice and opprobrium that demands these guys get tossed from the ranks.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    Every country mentioned (with the only-partial exceptions of Ireland and South Africa) is a mostly-Protestant Anglophone country with an Anglo-Saxon legal-moral culture, which wouldn’t deny Julia’s point about the confusion caused by the view of defrocking as a juridical punishment.

    And in any event this is irrelevant to the weightiest objection to the whole anti-Vatican/anti-Ratzinger spin narrative — that protection of children on a day-to-day basis just isn’t, and cannot be, the business of Rome but of the bishops and the US Catholic laity. The Vatican can only deal with relatively minor or at least sidebar issues that speak to the integrity if the church as a whole (the laicization process, the theological standing of bishops, doctrinal matters, etc.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Look at this thread.

    Count the number of comments that are actually about the journalism issues the MZ raises.

    Telling, isn’t it? How do we get accurate, balanced journalism if so few readers want it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Yes, tmatt, and whether anyone wants journalism discussions or not — that’s what this site is for. Please keep comments focused on journalism and not other issues.

  • vikingmother

    I read the NY Times regularly about 5-6 years back when they were attacking Pres. Bush’s Vietnam war record.

    I looked and looked for evidence…such as valid documents they could cite and for serious quotes from witnesses…

    Am going on memory here, but generally the NY times articles accusing Bush of having a substandard war record…had no real meat to them.

    I.e. like this article about then-Cardinal Benedict—there was lots of accusations & hype & few substantial facts.

    Sorta like reading a small college newspaper—! Substandard journalism.

    But in a society where feelings matter more than facts…and where Sensationalism rules over Socratic thinking…that’s what you get.

    Journalism junk food!

  • Julia

    It’s sometimes very hard to let people’s off-topic comments go unanswered.

    I will try harder in the future to do that.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    There is always the option of taking these off-topic discussions offline!

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    In reading the article on the claim that the Catholic Church is laicizing too many priests I realized that there was a major problem in the reporting. I am not sure even if this problem had not existed, if the comments would have been much different.

    Many comments were “report them to the authorities”, “throw threm in jail” etc. The problem is that there is a reason why none of these would matter. The article never once addressed this, and too many other articles on this matter fail to bring it up as well.

    It is the statute of limitations, and specifically the 2003 US Supreme Court decision (all Catholics then on the court dissenting) that made statutes-of-limiations non-revocable once they have kicked in.

    There have been multiple Roman Catholic priests sent to jail for various crimes. However, many, many more have not been sent to jail. The reasons for this are complexed, including police and prosecutors not following up on cases where priests were seen by police in the act of having oral sex with a minor.

    However in most cases the reason no prosecution occured is because no one notified government authorities until after the statute of limitations had run out. Whether Church authorities knew and did not tell the government, or whether the victims did not tell anyone until too late for criminal proceedings is another story. The fact that in some states such criminal proceedings need to start before the victim turns 22 may be seen as extreme, and thus it is easy to see why Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy and Rehnquist did not see retroactively disabling a criminal statute of limitations as a violation of the constitution.

    Thus, every article anywhere related to the Child Sex Abuse Crisis should contain a statement about the Statute of Limitations, its non-revocability for criminal issues and how this means that the fast majority of cases can not be prosecuated, and no actions by state legislatures will effect prosecutions of the abusers of currently vocal victims. States can revoke statues of limitations on crimes that have not yet ocured, and I believe even on crimes where the statute has not yet taken effect, but not on crimes where it has, which is why most of the accused priests are not going to jail.

    The most egregious violation of this rule came in an article on a bill to revoke the statute of limitations (SOL) under some cercumstances for civil-suits related to sexual abuse in Connecticut. The problem was that the article failed to explain that a supreme court ruling prevents the revoking of criminal SOLs.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    And now that they have moved to clarify things, they get attacked even more – damned if you do and damned if you don’t, it seems. See Notes from underground: Brit media attacks on Catholics sink to a new low.