John Allen; definitive on Benedict, Scandals

The great John Allen, perhaps the best English-language reporter on the Vatican beat, does yeoman’s work in three different articles, to which I am linking today. Allen takes knowledgeable, sometimes devastating but always fair looks at Pope Benedict XVI and the crisis that has engulfed him over the past few weeks and has come to -rather unjustly- define his papacy.

None of these pieces is fun to read. All of them are thoughtful, instructive and very valuable, particularly to anyone who wants to do more than read headlines and parrot them.

Allen asks, can a teaching pope get his house in order? while looking at how the strengths of Benedict’s papacy have all been buried, with the help of his own Communications team and his inattention “to the nuts and bolts of internal ecclesiastical administration.”

*The public image of this “teaching pope,” a man friends and foes alike acknowledge as a towering intellectual and theologian, is being defined by almost everything other than his teaching;
* There’s a positive story to tell about Benedict XVI — perhaps principally his embrace of “Affirmative Orthodoxy,” meaning an emphasis on what the church is for rather than what it’s against — but the people who know that story best, Benedict’s most trusted aides, often seem remarkably incapable of telling it;
* A pope elected in part to fix problems of internal governance under his predecessor has instead assembled a regime that seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, making the papacy of John Paul II look like a well-oiled machine in comparison;
* A pope known by insiders as the great reformer on the sex abuse crisis has now become, at least in some influential circles, the global symbol of the problem.

Collectively, what these ironies point to is a sharp contrast between “insider” and “outsider” perceptions of Benedict XVI.

For insiders, Benedict looms as one of the great teaching popes of the last couple of centuries. [...] Of course, this is not what the outside world sees, and it’s definitely not the dominant media storyline. Instead, for the vast majority of people on the planet, Benedict’s pontificate has been defined largely by its train-wrecks.

In the UK Spectator, Allen, in a long exposition, “don’t be daft; you can’t put the pope on trial

Despite Robertson’s attempt to link the Holy See with the Bush administration because a Bush lawyer once confirmed its sovereign status in an American court, the Vatican’s legal independence also allowed Pope John Paul II and his envoys to emerge as the most important moral critics of the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.

By any reasonable standard, Pope Benedict XVI is the head of a sovereign entity and entitled to immunity under international law.

Ultimately, however, that’s not the reason why attempts to indict Benedict as the mastermind of a global conspiracy to protect paedophile priests miss the mark. If he truly were guilty as charged, then an effort to bulldoze through centuries of legal precedent to bring him to heel might be warranted.

In reality, those who have paid attention to this story over the past decade — as opposed to waking up to it only now — realise that no senior figure in the Catholic Church has done more to combat priestly sex abuse than the current pope.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who is now Benedict XVI, in charge of the Vatican’s response to the crisis. Ratzinger was compelled carefully to study the case files of every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world. That experience gave him a grasp of the depth and gravity of the problem that almost no one else, inside the Catholic Church or out, can claim.

You’ll want to read the whole thing.

Finally there is this headspinner:
Vatican Disses One of Its Own on Sex Abuse:

Late Thursday evening Rome time, the Vatican released a statement in response to media reports in France about a September 2001 letter from Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, at the time the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, congratulating a French bishop for not reporting an abuser priest to the police.

In effect, the Vatican statement suggests that Castrillón Hoyos was part of the problem which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, eventually solved.
Castrillón Hoyos’s letter congratulates Pican for not repoting Bissey to the French police and civil authorities. In the version published by Golias, it reads: “I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the others bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons, a priest.”

Thursday night’s Vatican statement suggests that Castrillón Hoyos’s attitude was part of the reason that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, pressed for a more aggressive policy on the removal of predator priests.

Once again, if you read it all, Ratzinger comes away (as he does in this piece on a different matter) as seemingly the only guy in Rome with any integrity.

I cannot wait to read the tireless John Allen’s reports from Benedict’s trip to Malta

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh has more thoughts on all of this.

Over at America Magazine, Austin Ivereigh has more on this, and one should also read his very insightful piece of April 12, where he notes:

The scapegoat mechanism comes into play when tensions — often buried and unconscious — accumulate, when those involved must ‘let off steam’ or the social fabric will burst. The energy of indignation and anger is fuelled, over this issue, by the fact that sexual abuse of minors is extremely common in families — 70 per cent of victims have suffered at the hands of a relative — yet almost never talked about, let alone dealt with. The Church has become a surrogate victim, unconsciously identified as the cause of the tension which society feels but cannot identify.

This is not a way of deflecting from the Church’s real failures on this issue . . .But the coverage has now moved into a new, irrational phase. The media have merged with the mob. They are not standing outside the crowd, coolly examining the facts. They are standing in locus vulgi.

Meanwhile, over at Whispers in the Loggia, Rocco Palmo has video to a local press conference in Tennessee, which demonstrates “that the church — at least, on these shores — can handle allegations firmly, fairly, swiftly and with transparency and healing paramount”

The church reacts here, in accordance with the policies put in place since 2002, that one local scribe takes note:

One week ago, a priest in Denver was accused of sexually abusing a minor in the early 1970s. The very next day he was sacked — withdrawn from active ministry and, as the Denver archdiocese’s press release says, stripped of “his priestly faculties.”

Three days later both the complaint and the archdiocese’s response were announced to the world. Now that’s taking abuse allegations seriously.

Is there any other institution or employer that would act this decisively on the basis of a single, uncorroborated accusation dating back decades? Let’s hope not. It’s understandable that church officials feel obliged to take such ruthless action given the debacle of the sexual abuse scandal. If they didn’t, they’d be accused of a cover-up. But the policy — in place since 2002 — is draconian and would trigger indignation if imposed anywhere else.

Related: A reader last night asked me what I thought of Peggy Noonan’s piece. I think she made a few good points, but her suggestion of a vague “elevation” of women and the young does not appear to take into account just how “elevated” women have become. A cleric recently pointed out to me:

“In the Brooklyn Diocese, women are in charge of the office that deals with abuse cases — it was a nun who came to our parish to tell us about [an accused priest], and it’s another nun who oversees the VIRTUS training program and makes sure that all parishes are in compliance. In a number of dioceses, they also have women serving as chancellor — in effect, the second most powerful person, after the bishop.”

It may be a popular meme, but the truth is ordaining women is not a magic elixir against the problem of abuse, or of closed-ranks clericalism. A female Episcopal priest writes here, that the effect in her church has been decidedly mixed.

I thought it odd in the extreme that Noonan could write a whole piece on this crisis and not once mention the pope who has done the most to address it. Benedict is completely absent from her piece and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was feeling he was “too hot” to stand up for. If so, she has contributed to the toxicity of a narrative, when she could have assisted in administering some antidote. But two of my correspondents were of an opinion that I think I agree with.

From a male: “I’m coming to agree, more and more, that the all-male celibate priesthood isn’t the problem — it’s the culture surrounding it. Women can be just as ambitious, conniving, secretive and exclusionary. As someone who worked in Washington, Noonan should understand that.”

From a female: “Saying that the answer is to promote the young and have women everywhere at the Vatican? Right. Because JFK and Obama make such sterling statements for youth leading wisely and Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi prove that women can’t go wrong when its a life issue dealing with children.”

As a good friend would say: “hotsy-totsy! Ouch!”

Lots more to read. We’re still waiting on the full transcripts of Benedict’s tantalizing and impromptu remarks from yesterday.

Julie at Happy Catholic has a round-up of sorts. She is too generous in her remarks touching me, but otherwise, that’s a sturdy resource page.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.: The Moral Consequences of Episcopal Sin
William McGurn: The Pope and the New York Times
Peter Brown: Is the Church too big?

Unrelated, but interesting:
Nebraska Outlaws Late Term Abortions: Because fetuses feel pain Barely covered in media.
My Benedictine Brothers: Retranslating the Grail Psalms
Msgr. Charles Pope: There is a Force to Holiness
Joe Carter: Four Reasons You Might Be Aborted
Crittenden: Not the rich, nor the powerful
David Mills: the “unfairly demonized” church
7,500 shoppers: Sold their souls to the Devil, online
The Aquinas Conquest
The Death of the Church: Greatly exaggerated
Crescat: Her long-anticipated trip to Malta to see Benedict may be canceled due to volcanic ash
What a picture!: Reminds me of the devil screaming from the abyss as Christ dies on the cross

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • M. Whittaker

    “They are standing in locus vulgi.”

    Aaaaaaaaa! To pompously turn a Latin phrase is bad enough. But try to get it right, at least, when you do. (Has America laid off its editors?)

    You should give him a sic, at least. Or since it’s a double solecism, a sic sic. Or maybe just don’t quote him. That’s such a howler it detracts from any valid point he may have.

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  • Bender

    Allen asks, can a teaching pope get his house in order?

    One could very well ask — “Can a teaching Lord get His house in order?”

    It didn’t matter and doesn’t matter how Jesus established the Church. Jesus is PERFECT and they still attacked Him and still do today. It is not the Pope who is the problem, it is not the Curia that is the problem, it is not the administrative offices of the Holy See that are the problem. They too could be totally perfect and they would still come under whithering attack.

    If they hated Him, they are going to hate us. Never forget that.


    Peggy Noonan has been odd in the extreme for a while now. She is a political creature, and not a very astute one either. To repeat what I said earlier, she is a political Catholic, she views the faith in terms of geo-politics. I would no more listen to her on to “how to save the Catholic Church” than I would listen to John Sprong or Garry Wills.

  • Myssi

    FWIW, the case in Tennessee happened in my local parish. The victim talked to our local newspaper and said (paraphrasing) that he only came forward now because he’s felt guilty for years that he may have let someone else be harmed by his silence. The priest involved has already retired and has admitted that he did it. He’s not talking to media, but is cooperating with authorities in the investigation.
    25 or 30 years ago, people didn’t think of pedophilia like we do today. Kids were blamed as much as abusers then. I can’t blame the victim for not stepping forward.
    It’s a sad day in our town…it would be if it were a Baptist minister too.

  • CV

    After reading the latest Noonan column, I’ve officially written off these and any future insights on Catholicism she might care to offer.

    In her last column, she hammered home the point that the press was the Church’s “best friend” and ended on a patronizing note that the people in the pews were not “stupid.” When this scandal broke in the US in 2002, Catholics were shocked but few criticized the Pultizer-prize-winning work that the Boston Globe did to uncover the depth of the problem. This time around things are quite different, and what the New York Times did in attacking the Church (through sloppy journalism) was quite different. Is Noonan really so unaware of how much progress has been made over the past decade toward addressing clergy misconduct?

    It’s clear she’s never spent hours in “Protecting God’s Children” workshops and filling out state child abuse clearances just to volunteer to pass out straws at classroom parties (as I have in my kids’ Catholic schools).

    No institution has done more to accept and face up to this issue than the Catholic Church, and if Noonan is that under-informed then she really needs to get out of the Upper East Side more often.

    Bender is right–she is a political Catholic and not the best person to be giving advice on “facing reality” as she sees it.

  • archangel

    Noonan supported Obama. Now she criticizes him in total shock.

    Anything she has to say regarding the church should be taken as if Pelosi says it, IMO.

    Enough said.

    PS-Loved her book on JPII but I have lost total respect for anything she writes now, political or otherwise.

  • Tom

    You must be reading a different John Allen if you think he’s “definitive” on Pope Benedict or any other subject. Have you actually read what’s he written? Do you have trouble detecting the subtext that runs through every piece on His Holiness? The only “yeoman’s work” Allen’s doing is trying to trash the Holy Father without appearing to do so.

    By the way, your comment on the Holy Father as the “homely guy” following JPII with a shovel was completely uncalled for. Are you competing with Ross Douthat or something? Because comments like this make you look shallow.

  • Pia

    I was startled to read your complimentary remarks about John Allen. He certainly is a talented writer and is at his best when he writes balanced work. Sadly, his work is rarely balanced.
    To refer to him as great is a bit much.

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  • Chaney

    I always stop reading pieces on this scandal when I get to the word “pedophilia”. How many times does it have to be established, whether from the John Jay study or articles in the Boston Globe (no friend of the church) that there are almost no cases of pedophilia involved here.

    Anyone who says the church has a pedophile priest problem, as wonderfully alliterative as the phrase is, is either a liar or embarrassingly ignorant.

    Certainly no author who is in that position vis-a-vis these molestation cases can write definitively, or even reliably, on them.

  • Annie

    I often wonder if Benedict was resigned from the beginning that his papacy would be short and therefore he would focus his time using his strengths…his brilliant teaching ability, rather than make major changes in the vatican administration. (You were astute to note that he even dared to teach yesterday in his off-the-cuff comments).

    I think Benedict is the pope we need right now…a brilliant, humble and fatherly pastor and I love him very much.

    But I must say that I wouldn’t shed any tears if he were to get rid of some of his curia who are not up to par. He, and the church deserve better!

  • Brian English

    “Is Noonan really so unaware of how much progress has been made over the past decade toward addressing clergy misconduct?”

    Apparently she is. Unfortunately, she is far from alone in her ignorance.

  • Julie

    Thank you for all your insight and your wonderful links. I appreciate your blog so much.
    Because I’ve followed the Whispers in the Loggia site practically from the beginning, I thought you might want to note that his last name is Palmo.

    [A typo- thanks for the headsup -admin]

  • Sal

    Fwiw, today is his birthday. Prayers for him, and for the whole Church.

  • cathyf

    Gee, never occurred to me it was a typo — I thought all Whispers fans just call him “Rocco” with no surname necessary!

    [I do! And it's very rude of me! :-) -admin]

  • B. Durbin

    The Denver decision actually saddens me, as we locally had an accusation that proved to be unfounded (and refuted.) The priest involved was put on the equivalence of administrative leave while the charges were researched; unfortunately, the experience eventually led to his resignation from the priesthood as he felt his reputation had been permanently damaged. It was a real pity as, like I said, it turned out to be a malicious accusation.

    I have no problem with swift justice, but I dislike such decisions prior to fact-finding. Remove the priest from power immediately, yes. Laicize before finding the truth? Not good.

  • Greifer

    The oddest part of the Noonan piece was her adoration of Pope John Paul leading her to not say what we all know now to be true: Pope John Paul made grievous errors in judgment when told of these scandals, and he did so for a reason that should be easy to say: he was convinced that accusing a priest of pederasty or homosexual acts was a malicious way to destroy someone, because that is exactly how the Communists tried it in the Eastern bloc.

    He made judgment errors with Maciel in specific, too, but it was the same blind spot. Our popes are human. Our beams in our eyes are large. I do not say these things to declaim his greatness. But she wouldn’t say it because she wrote the biography and it would reflect poorly on her, I susepct.

  • Maureen

    The problem is that, historically, if you fire enough Roman curia bureaucrats or bishops, they run off and start a schism. Preferably involving hundreds of shooting wars all across Europe.

    The other problem is that, historically, if you’re enough of a hardliner to fire all those Curia bureaucrats and bishops, you tend to be Pope Urban VI and cause schisms involving hundreds of shooting wars all across Europe. And when people point this out to you, you tend to be enough of a hardliner to get worse instead of better.

    One of the things the pope said in his old autobio was that when he came to Rome as a cardinal, he learned that he had to work on Rome’s manana timeframe, and that having a temper didn’t help a bit.

    So… there’s only so far that popes are prepared to go, unless they have some sort of fixer to make it work. And fixers don’t tend to be in favor of sweeping reforms.

    By working in the manana timeframe in a gradual but unchanging way, this pope has already changed quite a lot of stuff. (Fr. Z calls this “brick by brick” or “the Marshall plan for rebuilding the Church”.) He’s been successful in that because he’s been able to drag it out to the point that it’s hard to resist.

    For example, he celebrated Mass for a big papal commission this week “toward the east”, and hardly anybody cared or noticed. If he’d done that in the first week of office, pretty much everybody would have had a heart attack except the ones who were rioting from sheer joy.

    Much the same thing has been happening with Curia and bishopric appointments, and with the gradual maneuvering of jerks toward jobs where they can’t hurt anything but can’t complain that they don’t have a nice office. The complacent remain fat and happy instead of starting schisms.

    But this is pretty much the work of a guy who doesn’t find it natural to think this way, and probably does it all according to a timetable he worked out in the first week of his papacy.

    A natural people person or a fixer would pay more attention to all the other stuff, and probably spend a lot more time making sure journalists got nice dinners and went to nice parties at the houses of allies. And of course, a fixer would have allies who were good at this sort of thing.

    But that’s just not what our little pope is good at, and he’s apparently not going to spend his limited energies on bella figura. Why a town full of fixers and people persons doesn’t just step in and help him, I don’t know. Maybe some of them do, and we just don’t see it.

    I think in the back of his head, either the pope expects people to do their jobs without being asked, or has no hope at all that you can get a press office that’s at all competent.

    I’m just glad it’s not my job.

    [Me too; I expect that there will be a schism, anyway. Look for the establishment of an "American Catholic Church," a mirror of the CofE, in our near future. -admin]

  • jh

    I have a few criticism of Allen article. I have been looking at the Italian Press and Vatican radio and such. It appears the votices at the Holy See that have a good graps of the problem and their comments get never reported.

    The fact is if the Vatican is going to have a WHite House Press operation that is on call 24 hours a day that can get it message out to all corners of the world quickly that has to be paid for. Who is going to do that.

    You are I think correct in pointing out Noonan’s article has some flaws. I would also say “new Blood” is not always the answer. It seems a lot fo the problems we have in the Catholic Church today came about when the “new blood” was very much in control.

    To echo another commenter I do have at this point with the info we have some rather severe misgiving on Chaput handled the latest abuse case. Are the Catholic Laity that is involved in the Church and have contact with youth ready to live under the same standard?

  • Bender

    Look for the establishment of an “American Catholic Church”

    By a very small number, perhaps. (And we already have a de facto American Catholic Church in a number of areas anyway.)

    But the large number of those types are not interested in starting and having their own church. Rather, their main objective is to change the existing Church, that is, to make it so that the Church, as she is, is no more. They are not interested in peaceful co-existence — they are allowed to do their thing and we are allowed to do our thing.

    No, their primary goal is the delegitimization of the Church as she is and as she has existed throughout history. If they had their own official “American Catholic Church,” their main focus would still be on attacking the Pope — much like some Protestant demoninations spend an inordinate amount of time attacking Catholicism.

  • Bender

    Rather, their main objective is to change the existing Church, that is, to make it so that the Church, as she is, is no more.

    I meant to add — THIS is why they do not leave now. This is why all the dissenters and self-hating Catholics refuse to go join some other church or denomination. They stay so that they can attack from within. They are more interested in tearing down the existing Church than they are in having a church more in line with their thinking.

    (Now, I’m NOT calling for them to leave if they are so dissatisfied with the Catholic Church. But we should be cognizant of what their true objectives are. I would prefer that they stay and at least make the attempt to love the Church, rather than hold her in contempt.)

  • Stefanie

    Maureen, I agree! I truly think that he has a 10-year papacy plan — and he sticks to it, no matter what the outrage. Having been ‘inside the Vatican’ for so long — yet coming in as an outsider of Germany, Papa Ben, knows exactly what needs to be done…and he’s doing it…brick by brick.

  • Norah

    So what happens to this retired priest now?

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