The Pope Is Not Impeccable

The Pope Is Not Impeccable April 7, 2010

They’re attacking the Pope. That is what many Catholics are saying right now.

It’s not about the Pope, it’s about the children who were abused. That is what many other Catholics are saying right now.

Both of these can, in their own way, be true. It is quite possible that many of the discussions about clergy sexual abuse, and the mismanagement of priests who have been found guilty of abuse, are being used to attack the Pope. However, let’s not use that to distance ourselves from the questions which have been raised, and the significant issues which need to be addressed. In making it all an attack on the Pope, the attacks on the children are ignored. In making all the discussion centered on how the Pope is being attacked, one can then attack the messenger and ignore the message.

There are many reasons why the Pope is the center of the discussion, and it doesn’t have to be because he is Pope. Indeed, it seems accidental that he is Pope at this point. The issues and concerns were when he was not the Pope, but the head of the CDF. That he happened to become Pope afterward should not be used as a way to distract us from the questions which have been raised about the way the Church has dealt with, and continues to deal with, sexual abuse.

The problem is that the ecclesial structure as it has developed over the last few centuries has cracked, and it is breaking apart. A new structure needs to emerge, one which can deal with the problems of the modern age, not the age of Trent.

Bishops are supposed to possess authority by the fact they are the successors of the Apostles, but the ecclesial system has, through the centralization of the papacy, made it nearly impossible for them to act — they have to bow to the curia. In this way, the bishops can say they have no responsibility beyond putting forward their case to the curia, hoping the curia will back them up in their actions. On the other hand, because the curia is so far away from the bishops, and has so many responsibilities of its own, it is quite clear they will never be able to deal adequately to the needs of the bishops. They require obedience and patience as their own concerns tend to be the ones which get their attention, and only after these concerns are done, can other concerns be brought up. This is exactly what is at stake and the issue.

What many people feel has been shown is that as the head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger was interested in matters of theology, leading him to fail in matters of policing abuse within the Church. This is not to say he did nothing. Pointing out times he did something does not deal with the issue, just as a sinner cannot tell God about the times they didn’t sin as a way to validate themselves. If we are honest, we will be able to notice that there was a vast difference in his work with theologians and dissent than with other kinds of abuse in the Church. To point this out is not an attack. Theologically, I myself like much of Pope Benedict’s work. But he was put into power in a dysfunctional system, and now we are seeing how dysfunctional it was. Until it is changed, however, we will be able to see the blame game being played out today continue to be played out in the future, where some people will point at bishops, and the bishops will point at the Vatican, with no one being seen as holding any responsibility to the mistakes of the past.

This is the crisis that centralization and ultramontanist theology has created for us. And it seems this is why the focus is on the Pope as if the Pope is being attacked. Indeed, many people ask me how I can question Pope Benedict, because he is, after all, the Pope and “the leader of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.” While I can understand why I should have to explain this to Protestants, it saddens me to see Catholics fall for this line of reasoning. The Pope is not impeccable. His opinions and prudential judgments are not infallible. He can, and does make mistakes. Some of those mistakes can be quite significant and need to be criticized. Popes can, and do sin, sometimes greatly. The office is important, but let’s not create a false understanding of the office as if it changes the person into a saint. When we do, we just create the means by which people will lose their faith.

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  • digbydolben

    I DON’T like his theology, because his theology seems to insist on a mindless uniformity of belief, or opinion, and I think that this mindless uniformity of belief or opinion directly influences his extremely reactionary ecclesiology, which resists the kind of reform that would make the Church accountable to lay people over matters like priestly abuse.

    Let’s just be honest, why don’t we: Benedict XVI Ratzinger rejects almost all of the trends of Vatican II that, if allowed to continue to flourish, would ultimately have decentralized much of Church governance, and, possibly, made local hierarchs more accountable to their faithful. There will be no return to Vatican II’s programme of decentralization (and, hence, more accountability on this and other matters) until Benedict is replaced.

    • Digby

      There are many aspects to his theology when one reads his own theological pieces. Remember, people can be wrong in one area and right in another. Ad homimens can come from all kinds of procedures; but for me, I am one who likes to approach anyone and see what I can learn from them, see what they get right, even if we must also admit they did some wrong in other places.

  • Mark Gordon

    But Henry, isn’t the “ultramontanist” position really the one that blames “Rome” for this problem when in fact all these cases originated in and were bungled by particular dioceses? In other words, the same people who claim that the Church is too focused on Rome are now the very ones who are fixated on what was or was not done by Rome!

    The Wisconsin situation is a case in point. The CDF is being criticized for not having acted in the Lawrence Murphy case, although it was only referred to the CDF in the mid-1990’s, two years before Murphy died and TWENTY YEARS after the last allegation. Very few of the “anti-ultramontanists” criticizing Ratzinger are spending any time at all asking why Rembert Weakland, the local ordinary (who took over in 1974), sat on the case for so long. In other words, they are acting in an ultramontanist fashio by reducing the entire problem to what Rome did or didn’t do.

    • Mark

      The reason why the blame is being pushed on Rome right now is because of how the structures have been put into place because of the ultramontanist position, which has limited the effectiveness and ability of the bishops. When I hear a new Archbishop talk about the Pope as pastoring everyone, I begin wondering what he thinks his own position is — just to be a yes-man to the Pope? That is what they have become, and it is not what they were meant to be. It is why most people will ignore most bishops and say “what does the Pope say?” As long as bishops have to follow many of the rules put in place to centralize authority, they will be as we see… both sides will point at each other, but we must remember, again, who is in control. And the issue is way beyond one case. The issue is how quick the reaction is and was to various theological tracts, while how slow it was to questionable actions of priests, as long as their theology appeared fine. This is a long-created imbalance and it is central to the issue now. The structure is the problem. The structure makes it difficult for real action when it is needed. The structure was created in a different time, with different needs. It is not working now. I believe the more traditional structures now need to return. Then bishops can be bishops and then they will have much more responsibility. Right now, responsibility is lost as I pointed out via Ellul in another post – the system itself as it is established has worked to make it difficult to find anyone responsible.

  • Mark Gordon

    Can digbydolben cite an example of the Second Vatican Council’s “programme of decentralization?”

    • Mark

      Lumen Gentium is seen to possess many elements which were wanted to balance out the decrees of Vatican I; indeed, it was known even at the time of Vatican I the ecclesial documents and discussions were not done when the council had to be ended. This caused a very imbalanced and centralized version of the papacy which supported the ultramontanists who followed through with the lead they were given, and we have seen the result of this within the last century. Vatican II not only re-emphasized the role of bishops, but also the laity in the Church, making sure that we don’t just think of the hierarchy as the Church, which was what was common — and is, again, what we see in many responses to the current crisis– “the Church is attacked by the media” when hierarchy are criticized with little “the Church is attacked by the priests” when we find those abused by priests.

  • Jim N

    Mark I think you are right. The press is not gunning for the pope because of the highly centralized administrative structure of the church. The press is gunning for the pope because it’s a big story if they can get him. They can draw more attention by suggesting that Cardinal Ratzinger showed excessive leniency as head of CDF (I just realized the irony of accusing him of this flaw) twenty years after the fact, than they would by reporting on the blatant mistakes made by the local diocese which actually directly failed to prevent additional abuse. The CDF only had jurisdiction over cases involving the confessional. Also I am surprised that intelligent people still buy into the stereotype of Benedict as the arch conservative with an agenda to undo Vatican II. He has not undone Vatican II. He was a substantial intellectual force at the Counsel. He is more of a scholar than a political animal. He submitted his resignation to John Paul II three times because he wanted to return to Germany and his teaching position. (Each time JP2 refused to accept his resignation). He did not campaign to become pope. He didn’t want the position. As pope he has reached out to dissident scholars on the left such as Hans Kung. He has written encyclicals about love and hope, rather than about repealling Vatican II. Also his work on the abuse cases has been effective. He has met with victims and streamlined the process for dealing with alleged offenders. He has brought transparency and efficiency to the process. Obviously he does not deserve blind loyalty from the faithful because of his position. But so far I am unaware of any credible claim that he had more than a passing involvement with the sex abuse scandal before he became pope.

    • We must look at the authority of the CDF and its power and authority over such priests, and then its lack of diligence in following through with that authority. Again, just because we can show examples where it did something does not dismiss the other cases, just like the times someone goes to mass (Christmas and Easter) does not prove they are good, regular church goers. And it is in this case under his jurisdiction at the CDF where we find the system was broke. It was solid when dealing with theological questions, and always up and quick to deal with them; but when dealing with questions of abuse, sometimes it went quick, sometimes very very slow. Why? There are many things involved. The isolation which I mentioned earlier this week is connected to this very issue. It is once again why the role of bishops need to be restored to a pre-1054 approach, which would give them far more leeway and authority (and responsibility) to those who are under their leadership, which is what we need for effective governance.

  • Michael Enright


    Do you believe that it was solid on theological grounds? Are you saying that you agree with the CDF response and investigation of Sobrino and other notable theologians?

    • Michael,

      Your question actually is not as simple as it might seem. There are far too many cases involved, and far too many issues, to give a comprehensive answer. But I will give, nonetheless, a simple answer: one can think the CDF is in good theological grounds without necessarily agreeing with their conclusions. Why? Sometimes I think they do not go far enough in their conclusions, or they are not going far enough in their analysis of the author in question. But I do think they were right to investigate theologians which raise important and difficult questions. Theology is not just for the sake of the theologian’s own personal interests, but for the community, and the community needs to speak. Sometimes they speak past each other at first, both sides raising sound theological points while appearing to be in contradiction — and end up not. Look to how St Thomas Aquinas was treated during his life.

      As for Sobrino, I have problems with him. More importantly, just because I have problems with a theologian, or the CDF points out legitimate problems in a theological work, that must not make it into an all or nothing position, as many do. Saints have a history of learning from and engaging heretics, and taking the good of the heretic and using it for the advancement of orthodoxy. Or someone can be like Meister Eckhart, whose legacy is very complex indeed.

  • M.Z.

    I would be more sympathetic to those protested structures and what not if they actually understood the structures. I’m certainly not speaking about Henry here, but there are a lot of folks who are just plain ignorant and are parading their ignorance and pretending to be experts. When people show an unwillingness to understand existing structures and how they work, they open themselves up to arguments that the source of their disagreements are ideological. And while I think there needs to be a debate about divesting Rome from some of its structures – I’m specifically thinking of creating 2 or 3 patriarchies – we aren’t dealing with parties that can competently debate the matter.

    • M.Z.

      I agree — I think many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, really do not understand the Church and its ecclesiology — but for the most part, I find most, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, think it all centers on the Pope. For me that is troubling, and what is making the debate shift from the abuse to the papacy itself. And if the Vatican wants to shift it to that direction, perhaps it is time for a discussion on the structures and the curia once again.

  • digbydolben

    We aren’t dealing with parties that can competently debate the matter.

    There we go: that is the typically elitist, ultramontane view of Catholic ecclesiology, and it has, ever since Vatican II, sought to EXCLUDE large portions of the faithful from participating in the restructuring of Church governance that everyone knows is necessary. The irony is that these exclusionary authoritarians think they are, in terms of Church history and tradition, “conservatives.” Actually, they are romantic idolators of a Tridentine reform which was a radical reaction to Protestantism.

    The ancient Church–much closer to Christ’s time than we are–had a structure of governance by local bishops that is very much like what Henry is advocating. This “circle-the-wagons,” Ratzinger attitude is extraordinarily cynical and despairing, and it is precisely this despairing attitude toward the world that has characterised almost all of the career of this timid, reactionary German priest-professor; he’s the farthest thing from a true pastor:,1518,687374,00.html

    • Digby

      Right, I am trying to encourage a return to the way bishops used to be, which gave them more authority, and with it, more responsibility. As long as all the authority has been removed from them and put at the Vatican, then we must not be surprised if the Vatican is held responsible. That is how authority works. And I am saying this as a faithful Catholic, with a strong adherence to authority itself. It is one thing to have a strong adherence to authority; it is another not to question actions or how the authority is currently being structured as if it were the best, most effective way to deal with the problems at hand. I think we can see, by the way everyone wants to find a way to excuse themselves from responsibility, the current system can’t continue. Responsibility has to be found somewhere if there is going to be authority which people can follow. I wish people could see this. I can only imagine what kinds of responses St Paul would have gotten in the modern era for his criticism of St Peter. Or St Catherine with her vocal position on the papacy.

    • M.Z.

      There we go: that is the typically elitist, ultramontane view of Catholic ecclesiology, and it has, ever since Vatican II, sought to EXCLUDE large portions of the faithful from participating in the restructuring of Church governance that everyone knows is necessary.

      I would go further and not merely claim the lay faithful have a right to participate in the structures of the Church, they have the duty. To take a trivial example, I think people have a similar right to participate in football. But the person is doing themselves no favors when they expound on their rights and they don’t know 11 men are on each side of the ball, the field is 100 yards, and you can throw the ball forward only once from behind the line of scrimage. Likewise, the people complaining about “Rome” are just as informed. Many gloss over the fact that things were held up in the Rota because priests were exercising their right of appeal. You only appeal after a conviction. Those convictions happened in diocesean courts.

  • Mark Gordon


    As I’ve written on my own blog we have to find a better way of identifying, naming, and empowering bishops; and if the former Archbishop of Munich is found to have violated the civil law he should be prosecuted and punished. However, much of the criticism being lodged against “Ratzinger” these days and in certain circles strikes me more as score settling than as a desire to achieve justice for victims of sexual abuse, much less bringing about real structual reform.

    As for ultramontanism, it depends on whose ox is being gored. A few years ago, when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, declared an automatic excommunication for Catholics who join the putatively anti-ultramontanist group, Call to Action, the organization promptly appealed to Rome to have the declaration overturned! So much for anti-ultramontanism. I suspect this charge is lodged more because “Rome” is perceived to be “conservative” than for any other reason. If “Rome” were considered to be a liberalizing force in the Church, many of those charging “ultramontanism” would change their tune in a hurry.

    Last, while i appreciate the spirit of your post, I think it is incumbent upon one proposing reform to be specific about the changes one would like to see. You fail to do that here. Could it be that you are waiting for Rome to propose specifics you won’t offer, and if so isn’t that very ultramontanist of you?

    • Mark

      Once again, we are dealing with a structure where the bishops don’t have the authority; the authority is vested in the Vatican. I have been quite specific in this discussion: bishops need to be authorities. They need to be able to do the things with less interference from the Vatican in their day to day actions. They need to be true princes of the church, not yes-men to the pope. As long as they are seen as mere yes-men to the pope, and the pope puts the authority in the curia, the system will be messed up, and responsibility will be lacking. And there is more than one letter, one issue which is going on. It’s not about a score to settle. As long as people are looking at it as a “score to settle” and ignore the structures of sin which have settled within the ecclesial structure itself, this sin and other sins will find themselves repeating themselves under the cover which is being given for them.

      • More importantly, Mark, I think you still fail to recognize one of the significant points being made: the system as it now stands follows through the developments put on it by ultramontanists who helped centralize the authority in such a way that for things to change, that central authority now has to act. To say ” you are being ultramontanist” for that is a failure to understand the practical reality and where we stand. One can be pointing out the system as it now stands is in the wrong (St Catherine did a good job there) and nonetheless, still know they have to address that system while it is in place to change it. It’s not ultramontanist to follow the rules as they are in place — but how they got there, and how they are supported, tends to be.

  • Mark Gordon


    With respect, “bishops need to be authorities” is not specific. It is general and vague. What specifically should bishops be empowered to do that is not now permitted to them?

    • Mark

      Did you actually read the case? Archbishop Weakland was told not to continue with a trial against the priest who did all the abuse. He wanted to but it was not in his authority to do so anymore. Please, remember the contexts. But more importantly, remember history. What kinds of authority did bishops have? Why were they strong and able to do things in times past but now they are just treated as yes-men to the pope, to be ignored if people don’t like what they have to say? Their authority has been scrubbed. There is no real connection and bond between the people and their bishop. Most do treat the Pope as universal bishop. That is wrong. The fruit of that error, I hope, will be enough to show why there is need for change.

  • David Nickol

    The media are doing what the media do. It is not anti-Catholicism. The New York Times is not trying to bring down the pope. The idea is ridiculous. Are some people who resent the Catholic Church seizing on the current scandals to criticize it? Of course. But the stories being reported are not being fabricated.

    The story Money paved way for Maciel’s influence in the Vatican is much more damning of the Vatican and Pope John Paul II than anything that has been reported about anything Benedict has done as pope or did as head of the CDF.

  • Mark Gordon


    Weakland had the power to deal with Murphy. He didn’t use it. The allegations against Murphy were lodged in 1974. Weakland took over Milwaukee in 1977. Weakland failed to try Murphy for twenty years, although he had the power to do so! It was not until 1996 that Weakland informed Rome that some of the allegations involved the Sacrament of Confession, which at that point made it a CDF matter. In essence, Weakland passed the buck to Rome. The CDF recommended a canonical trial. Weakland finally initiated proceedings a year later. A year after that the trial began, but was suspended in August 1998 because of Murphy’s deteriorating health. Murphy died a few days after the suspension.

    The power to conduct canonical trials wasn’t assumed by the CDF until 2001, Henry. It was assumed PRECISELY because local bishops like Weakland weren’t making use of the juridical process to deal with abusive priests. Weakland and the others had this free and independent power until 2001, but they failed to use it, and as a result imperiled countless young people. Now, I would be all in favor of returning that power to local bishops, but they had it and failed to use it. What was Rome supposed to do? If the CDF hadn’t assumed responsibility for canonical trials of abusive priests, we’d be arguing about Rome’s “negligence” today.

    • Mark,

      It could well be the case that Weakland was guilty and failed as well. I am not arguing against that here — and if so, more investigation needs to be done as to why. The situation as I read it is he wasn’t himself familiar with the charges until he got letters from attorneys in the 90s, as per the document trail:

      I could be wrong. But even then, even if as we know, bishops will also fail and need to take responsibility as well, that is neither here nor there with the issue of the system as it is put in place and worked out with Cardinal Ratzinger and how the centralization of authority does indeed affect the very issue. You are trying to play it both ways. I will let others make their own understanding known, but I think you still are failing to try to engage the post itself for a kind of defensive posture. Continue as you wish, I have said what I needed to say about that.

  • digbydolben

    Henry, you nailed it when you said that all the figures of authority are trying to deflect the responsibility for bad decision-making on somebody else. That should be enough for anybody who understands how dysfunctional organisations work; it’s how dysfunctional schools work; it’s how dysfunctional bureaus and corporations work, and it’s instantly recognisable.

    If the Catholic Church is working that way right now, then there is, indeed, something seriously wrong with the management of the Catholic Church. Popes were once “first among equals”–articulators of dogma, and that was IT–not policemen of orthodoxy (ultimately defined by Church COUNCILS) and not the “pedophile police,” either, with mortui proprii (sp.?) reserving to them the exclusive right to “defrock pedophiles.”

    (Do you so-called “Catholic conservatives” have any idea of what a devout Renaissance or even Counter-Reformation Catholic prince would have made of a papal pretence to such a prerogative, over his own civil authority? He would have WARRED upon such a pope, as, for instance, Philip II of Spain did! In my opinion, modern civil authorities should behave the same way, and so something like serve Benedict XVI Ratzinger with an extradition warrant for Cardinal Law–and good and faithful Catholics, who understand the need to reform their Church, should support it!)

  • digbydolben

    MZ, the “appeals” and “convictions” should not be taking place in “diocesan courts” at all; there should be a RULE in the Catholic Church that all accusations of molestation or sexual abuse should be referred to the civil authorities by bishops immediately, and that laicization procedures should be predicated upon evidence that turns up through civil prosecutions, which inherently have more investigative powers and resources than Church courts do

  • Mark Gordon

    Henry, thanks for imputing bad faith. I expect that from some here (which is why I frequently drop out), but not you. I am surprised and disappointed.

    So, You called for structural reform and the return of power to bishops, but failed to specify what reforms you desire or what powers you want restored.

  • Why is the whole thrust of the discussion focused on how to better handle the aftermath of sexual abuse in the future, rather than on how to prevent its continued, clearly endemic occurrence in the first place?

    • Rodak

      I’m not sure who you think is trying to better handle the aftermath in the future; for me, the two are inter-connected. We need to understand how we got to where we are today, and not repeat those things which will allow for abuse to continue. It is quite clear to me how abuse was treated in the past allowed for its continuation. And how leaders in the Church are acting now are giving the walls needed to allow abuse to be hidden once again — the reaction we see going on now was the kind of reaction we saw with the LC affair.

  • But, who is talking about weeding out potential abusers before they ever get into the priesthood? Would it be your contention that the percentage of pedophiles in the priesthood is the same as that in the general population, and therefore inevitable? Maybe this is the case, but it is certainly not the perception.

    • Rodak

      They have a program in play already trying to weed out potential abusers; I don’t think it is perfect, and you are right, it can be looked into, reinforced. But there is a difficulty in basing things on profiling, and one can err in many ways, pro and con. As for pedophilia, and sexual abusers, I am not wanting to address it “in society” per se when addressing the reform needed by the Church other than to recognize: it is there, it is more there than people expect, and the social problem needs to be looked into by society as a whole and dealt with by society. But, as I posted earlier this week, the Church is expected to do better and more than society to deal with this, and it is why it is not good to point to society and say “see, it’s just as bad there.” On the other hand, we must recognize, we will get good and bad priests. We just need to do more with the bad priests and even work to make sure those who are good don’t become bad. Of course, we can look at abuse in society and use it to help us understand why people become abusers — but beyond that, we need to do better and more to deal with the problem when it happens and to prevent it from happening.

  • digbydolben

    I think Rodak has a point, though: I bet that he and other “conservatives” think that the problem is “homosexual priests”; I don’t, I think the problem is clerical celibacy and the disempowerment of women–as well as the theology-premised negative attitude toward sexuality, and, in particular female sexuality and homosexuality. However, I agree with Rodak that this discussion about where all this pedophilia is coming from needs to take place.

  • What I suggested on another link the other day was that the prevalence this kind of problem in the Catholic priesthood may be, at least in part, a function of men who have discovered forbidden urges in themselves entering the priesthood in order to either shield themselves from such urges behind the barricade of celibacy, or to mask these urges behind the assumption of celibacy. This would suggest that celibacy is, in fact, a magnet; and maybe more trouble than it’s worth.

    • Rodak

      Though I really do not want to address the point outside of the Catholic Church, when engaging the question of “does x cause it,” one would expect if x is a cause, it would mean places without x would likely have lower incidences of such abuse. The problem is, one does not — and one can find an early example here: (for Protestant statistics) and an ongoing example here (to see what is going on within Orthodox Churches in the US).

      What I would agree is that many people might go into priesthood, thinking it will help them overcome desires they fear they cannot control without holy orders. This probably was truer decades ago, before all kinds of psychological tests have been put into place before one can be ordained — but I expect it is still true, to a degree, today. Nonetheless, I also think many priests who are celibate, who don’t have the urges in the first place, might never achieve full maturity before they become a priest, and in their isolation from the community, in their loneliness, do not grow and mature, and end up falling apart inside and out. The isolation we see priests suffer from, where they are questioned if they get on the internet to just chat with people (I see it all the time) I think will cause a weaker priest, who has not matured, and break them down — leading not only to this problem, but many other potential ones (alcoholism, etc). The lack of real community I think is a big issue. Marriage can help some priests in this, but — it can also hurt others, if they are married and it becomes a failed marriage. Just — the variables are more than a simple analysis would provide.

  • Interesting. I was not able to get from the page linked to any kind of table of statistics by percentage of population, however, so I don’t know what the numbers I found there actually indicate w/r/t my musings.
    Other interesting comparisons would be stats for grade school teachers, scout leaders, and other professions or vocations where men (and women) hold positions of authority over children, but are not (voluntarily) celibate.

  • Nate Wildermuth

    Mark – off topic, but I love the mission of your blog!

  • Henry,

    The basic thing missing from your narrative here is that, at least if John Allen’s reporting is to be believed, it was not until 2001 that the CDF was given worldwide responsibility for dealing with abuse allegations. Prior to that, Rome only had authority over such situations in a few instances of abuse of the sacraments in providing final approval to laicization. And that power was only assumed by Rome due to the complete failure to take responsibility for their own dioceses which many bishops had shown.

    Now, you could certainly argue that the reason why bishops failed to take responsibility for dealing with abuse in their own dioceses is that they were already accustomed to deferring to Rome in other matters, and they thus imagined that could ignore even problems that were thus far their own responsibility. But that seems a rther more tenuous contention, nor does it necessarily seem like the obvious course in that situation is to immediately give the bishops less supervision from Rome.

  • I note that the Protestant ministers whose cases were detailed at the site Henry directed me to above had all simply been indicted and turned over to the authorities as the criminals they are. Remove them from society first, and worry about their ecclesiastical status after, would seem to be the prudent course of action.
    In other words, it is not primarily the Bishops’ responsibility to deal with these priests; that is the job of District Attorneys.

  • David Nickol

    Weakland had the power to deal with Murphy. He didn’t use it. The allegations against Murphy were lodged in 1974. Weakland took over Milwaukee in 1977.

    Mark Gordon:

    The allegations in the 1970s against Murphy (and a civil suit that was later dropped) resulted in Murphy being put on a leave of absence in 1974 by Weakland’s predecessor. From that point on, Murphy lived in the Archdiocese of Superior. Technically, he was the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but he never functioned as a priest

    Details are murky, but it seems Weakland didn’t know details of what happened (in particular, the solicitations in the confessional) until 1996. And furthermore, in November of 1996 Weakland was informed of a possible lawsuit against the archdiocese. This raised the possibility of scandal, and it seems Weakland very much wanted to try and defrock Murphy not in order to stop him from molesting again (he may or may not have been molesting boys in the Archdiocese of Superior), but as a way of showing the Deaf Community that this mattered to the Church.

  • David Nickol

    I neglected to finish a sentence above. It should have been: “Technically, he was the responsibility of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but he never functioned as a priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese or even set foot there from 1974 on.

  • David Nickol

    A year after that the trial began, but was suspended in August 1998 because of Murphy’s deteriorating health. Murphy died a few days after the suspension.

    Mark Gordon:

    Without going into all the documentary evidence, it seems clear to me that Weakland wanted the trial to continue, and the CDF wanted it to be halted. I don’t think either position is demonstrably wrongheaded, so I am curious as to why it seems so important to so many people to “prove” that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was in no way involved. As I have pointed out before, the two basic arguments are (1) the CDF did nothing wrong, and (2) Cardinal Ratzinger had nothing to do with it! If 1 is true, 2 is irrelevant.

    After meeting with Bertone and receiving minutes from the meeting, Weakland asked his Judicial Vicar to draft a response to Bertone. Although the Judicial Vicar, Father Brundage, claimed angrily that he was never informed to bring the trial to a close, it came out subsequently that the draft of the letter that he wrote for Weakland to send to Bertone said Weakland had instructed his Judicial Vicar to formally abate the trial. Weakland still maintains he wanted the trial to go forward, and Brundage (although his credibility is now very much damaged) claims he would have been outraged if he had been told to halt the trial.

    So the big question is as follows: Why did Weakland and Brundage end a trial that both claim they wanted to continue. The plausible answer is that the CDF, in making “suggestions” or stating its “preferences,” was in effect telling Weakland and Brundage to call off the trial.

  • digbydolben

    This is so much more civilised than what’s going on in the Catholic Church right now:

  • Chris Sullivan

    The plausible answer is that the CDF, in making “suggestions” or stating its “preferences,” was in effect telling Weakland and Brundage to call off the trial.

    I agree.

    It is clear that Weakland and the other US bishop wanted to try Murphy but CDF did not.

    Under Crimen Solicitationis the bishops had to act under CDF guidance in cases of solicitation in the confessional.

    CDF agued mercy for a dying priest. But that ignores the issues of justice for the victims, Murphy doing what he could to redress the damage he did (by accepting dismissal from the clerical state) and Weakland’s very valid point that the reputation of the Church required us to act and be seen to act, and a trial would have helped the healing process for the many victims.

    Regardless of whether Cdl Ratzinger made the decision (and I presume he did given the fact that Murphy’s appeal was addressed to Ratzinger and what we know of Ratzingers management style – old school, micromanagement) the fact remains that he was head of CDF at the time and therefore needs to accept responsibility for what happened on his watch.

    For the good of the Church, the Pope needs to apologise for what happened here and in Munich with Fr Hullermann.

    God Bless

  • David Nickol

    First Point: If letters on some specific matter were addressed to President Obama, he didn’t reply, Rahm Emanuel handled whatever it was, and the results were unpopular, how many people would accept a defense of Obama that he never had anything to do with it?

    Second Point: Say you work for a large company, and you want to execute some plan. You send a memo to the president of the company, and you get an authorization from the vice-president to do it. Then some months later, you meet with the vice president, and he points out all kinds of reasons why you should halt the execution of the plan, and subsequently sends you notes from the meeting. Do you forge ahead with the plan because nobody specifically told you to abandon it?

  • Let me sum up what VN is claiming here:

    The sex abuse scandal is not about the Pope, but Bishops were powerless to stop homosexual predators in their jurisdiction because of “the centralization of the papacy.” Yeah…

    Up until 2001, the CDF had virtually no jurisdiction in sex abuse cases, except for those involving abuse in the confessional. BUT, when Cardinal Ratzinger was in charge of the CDF, he focused way too much on his primary job – theology, and too little on abuse cases – the direct responsibility of the Bishops, so the Bishops had their hands tied by Rome. See?

    But we can’t blame Pope Benedict, “he was put into power in a dysfunctional system”…”the centralized the papacy.” So the Bishops in Milwaukee and Munich couldn’t put a stop to the sex abuse, because we couldn’t find someone in Rome to blame for the problem, I mean until now.

    But one thing’s for sure, no other Bishops’ mistakes are significant and none need to be criticized. It was all just the centralized system…the dictatorship of the Papacy. When the Bishops get real authority in the Church, you can bet they’ll confront the sex abuse they ignored for 50 years. You bet…

    PS: dump on something medieval…like Trent.

    • Chris

      Trent isn’t medieval…. and that’s just the beginning of your mistakes.

  • David Nickol

    So the Bishops in Milwaukee and Munich couldn’t put a stop to the sex abuse . . .

    Just a note that in the Milwaukee case currently in the headlines, the issue was not about putting a stop to sex abuse.

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  • Jim N

    I disagree with the thesis that the Milwaukee case turned out badly because of the oversight of CDF. It seems to be proposed that this case was going well until Cardinal Ratzinger stepped in and caused all kinds of terrible results. The local diocese is to blame for the 20 year delay in adjudicating this matter and church centralization did not in any way contribute to this problem. The blatant mishandling of this case took place with no oversight from Rome, before the matter was reported to CDF. The role of Ratzinger is a small footnote. At worst he can be criticized for poor judgment in extending mercy to a dying repentent sex offender. That’s debatable. I also disagree with the thesis that the situation would be improved if Benedict were to make some apologetic statement acknowledging that it was a mistake to show mercy and that all would have been well if he had done otherwise, or simply deferred to the diocese and stayed out of the matter.

  • Chris


    Touche on Trent, silly me.

    But enough of little things, let’s move back to the big issue.

    Moving beyond mere scapegoating of Rome, are you adverturesome enough to sketch an outline of the ecclesial structure that would’ve prevented all of this?

    What could those be?

  • Chris

    And Mark Gordon is precisely right, and has the whole thing pegged here.

    Since Mark already asked Henry et al for the implied structural solution and didn’t get an answer, I guess I needn’t worry checking back for one.

    I’ll just check with VOTF.

    • I have already explained what is needed; indeed, others noticed my response and were able to restate it for you — those who act like I didn’t give a response are just ignoring the medieval view which I want to implement.

  • David Nickol

    The local diocese is to blame for the 20 year delay in adjudicating this matter and church centralization did not in any way contribute to this problem.

    Jim N,

    See my message of April 7, 2010 at 1:08 pm, above. The matter was handled by Weakland’s predecessor. The offender, Fr. Murphy was put on a leave of absence in 1974, two years before Weakland became archbishop, and never set foot in the Milwaukee Archdiocese again. Allegations of soliciting sex from boys in the confessional only because known to Weakland in 1996, and he had them investigated immediately. Also, Weakland was informed of a potential lawsuit, which was one of his motivations for wanting Murphy defrocked. See Weakland’s letter of July 17, 1996, to then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

    Weakland has many things to answer for, but sitting on the Murphy case for 20 years is not one of them.

  • Liam

    We do need to have a discussion about culture of romanità.

    Not everything about romanità is evil or even inferior to, say the organizational culture typically prevailing in the Anglosphere, but there this discussion reveals the more dysfunctional aspects of romanità. Not just the perfection of plausible deniability long before the US military-intelligence complex took it into the Cold War and beyond, but also and very importantly the terror at the very idea of causing a prelate to lose face in any obvious way unless one is forced to do to to “protect the Faith” (though, importantly, not necessarily to protect the faithful in fact).

  • digbydolben

    Hans Kung on why mandatory priestly celibacy must be abandoned:

    • I do think the “priestly celibacy” aside is really a distraction. It helps in some things, hurts in others. But if there is celibacy, I do think there needs to be a better way for the priests to have brotherhood and not be isolated and lonely and just used as tools for sacraments, as so many seem to do.

  • digbydolben

    I also think, Henry, that this whole affair stops the canonization of “John Paul the Great” dead in its tracks:

    • Digby,

      I think it does do a lot around Pope John Paul II, and I think we will see more questions around John Paul II then we can even guess. In fact, my intuition says this is one of the real things Pope Benedict is trying to protect. I also think some of the harsh treatment that Pope John Paul did to himself, like his self-flagellation, might have come as a result of his own perception, late in life, that he failed to deal with this when he could, and when he found out what was going on, things were out of his control and the curia itself kept him more isolated than we can imagine. I also think the reason why it was such a blind spot comes from his own experiences in Poland, where it was a common way for the communists to accuse priests, he got so used to it being used as lies (like the boy who cried wolf) that he just was ill prepared for the truth when it hit him. But again, this is my intuitive reading of it.

  • grega

    Of course one is not surprised that a good number of folks are rather busy engaging in sideshows in order to prevent real hard questions from being asked.
    Sure here in the US much of the conservative leaning catholic web can not be bothered one bit to consider the possibility of failure on the hand of beloved “properly orthodox” clergy.
    What does one expect this sort of thing rains on the orthodox parade – the march back to pre-Vatican II days – past days supposedly so splendid and lovely – never mind that quite a bit of the abuse dated well back pre VII.

    Like with most everything in our western world -in the end money will talk – loud and clear – in Germany for example many churchtax paying catholics are leaving the church right now -this will be a real bad financial hit-it seems to me that a majority of German Bishops will not wait for the abysmal Vatican PR to run its course – they will request freedom to implement what they see fit to revitalize a dying church – Benedetto’s medicine certainly has failed here -I bet we will hear serious noise towards married and female clergy.

    I found that by Joan Chittister on Mar. 17, 2010 wrote a very insightful piece
    “The question is why would a good man with a good heart, as he surely is, think twice about his responsibility to take moral and legal steps to stop a child predator from preying on more children everywhere, some of them for years at a time?

    The answer to that question is a simple one: It is that the kind of “blind obedience” once theologized as the ultimate step to holiness, is itself blind. It blinds a person to the insights and foresight and moral perspective of anyone other than an authority figure.

    Blind obedience is itself an abuse of human morality. It is a misuse of the human soul in the name of religious commitment. It is a sin against individual conscience. It makes moral children of the adults from whom moral agency is required. It makes a vow, which is meant to require religious figures to listen always to the law of God, beholden first to the laws of very human organizations in the person of very human authorities. It is a law that isn’t even working in the military and can never substitute for personal morality. “

  • digbydolben

    Grega, I agree with every word you’ve written, and, having just come back to America after an almost two-year stint in Germany (on my way, now, to India, a country where I’ve lived before, and much happier than in Europe)–I can attest to what you’ve written about the Germans: they’ve just about had it with the Catholic Church; even the most devout are now worried that their children will never darken the doorstep of a Catholic church in their lives.

  • grega

    Thanks digbydolben -What a sorry affair this is really –
    here in the US we now have conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat defending Benedict by pointing out that JPII was really the one to blame – how comforting.

    Since JPII was so busy appointing bishops and cardinals very much to his liking – including the current Pope we are very much stuck with a Pope and leadership unable to understand – they never will really get it – they obviously do not really give a damn if kids got abused – my own archbishop concludes that this all is just because society is rotten due to the sexual revolution -in the ‘good’ old days it would have been blamed on the godless communists and the jews – thanks a lot brother Nienstedt your ‘insights’ as usual are of great comfort to us.
    -why bother waiting breathlessly for anything of substance in this regard from Rome – or as it seems even from the local players-
    I conclude interested lay Catholics will have to sort this out for them – unfortunately plenty will vote with feet and wallets – but will not organize in any constructive way.
    Like you digbydolben, I very much like what Andrew Sullivan has to say – for example here.

  • digbydolben

    Grega, the solution (at least in America; the Germans don’t allow it, with their rotten “church tax”) for the laity is to remain in the Catholic Church (of course), but to vote with their wallets: NOT A DIME, NOT A PLUG NICKEL for the hierarchy until they purge themselves of “leaders” like Ratzinger. Sure, things like Catholic charities will suffer for a while–but only for a short while, because, believe me, these “hierarchs” FEED on “charitable donations,” and they don’t want to lose their plush lifestyles, episcopal palaces and all. I’d guess that if the spigot of American lay peoples’ donations were turned off for a year, Ratzinger would be gone by the end of that year.

  • grega

    Digbydolben, I fully expect that particular the german system will trigger immediate responds by the German bishops since many lay catholics right now take this latest zinger as a reason to leave the church – due to the system in place the resulting financial impact will be very severe and very immediate-
    as you pointed out in Germany due to a concordat that dates back to 1934? the government assist the church in tax collection for the church – the equivalent of the IRS withholding ~10% of your income tax – which helped make German diocese rather flush with funding – at some point in the 70th the archdiocese of cologne had a larger budget than the Vatican for example-
    if people do not declare themself catholics the funding will go to the state and not to the church –
    the way I read even very devout and pious catholics in Germany at my last visit – the people foremost want great priests – neither gender nor marital status matter in that regard really- frankly since like in most parts of the world the women are the ones who really keep church alive particular the question of female ordination has the potential to truly rejuvenate the church. I fully expect that we will hear noises in that direction from German bishops.
    Likely the church will split over that issue – I will go with the fraction that allows for female and married clergy.

  • grega
    • grega – Thanks for posting that post from Fr. Z. It’s good to be reminded of the good work Pfleger is doing. And we all know the real “heresy” of which Pfleger is guilty in the minds of people like Fr. Z. Let them have their museum-piece “church.” And let those of us who are interested in truly being church get on with our work:

      And more:

    • Interestingly enough, there was someone talking about this on the USCCB facebook page, saying something must be done, and part of the reason was because of how vocal he was in support for President Obama. I pointed out in reply that he is being awarded for his work, not for politics, and people shouldn’t confuse the GOP for the church. The USCCB deleted the thread. I don’t think they should have — they should have let people see what is going on. It’s not as if it were a spammer, but one of the regular commentators on the facebook page.

      Then someone came with his heresy. Once again, these people are quite ignorant of what heresy is. Personal opinion on this matter is not heresy. Many people, even those who follow the Church, might wish and think women should be priests, without saying they can or cannot (which also still has room for theological discussion and there has been no infallible declarations made).

      I liked how Stephen Hand wrote at how these same people are selective in their outrage, and are more open to SSPX-like thinking, and give benefit of doubt to those seeking a common liturgical ground.

  • digbydolben

    In the coming years, a way has to be found to continue to support the work of priests like Father Pfegler and, at the same time, to starve the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops of funds, so that they are FORCED to become more accountable to both the Catholic laity and American civil authorities.

  • brettsalkeld

    Father Z is absolutely right. Bishops need to hold their “demagogue” priests to higher account.

  • Father Z is absolutely right. Bishops need to hold their “demagogue” priests to higher account.

    Well, sure, but I guess the question is whether Fr. Pfleger is one of them. I think not. He’s a politically radical priest who disturbs american patriotic and racist attitudes. That is the problem most people have with him. His emerging views on women’s ordination and his so-called “liturgical abuse” (I personally don’t trust YouTube snippets to give the whole story) are merely convenient new reasons for people that really oppose him on other grounds.

  • grega

    Brett I take it you are joking. IMHO the Fr.Z. of this world talk a tough talk but otherwise seem plenty concerned how to finance the traveling twittering ‘connected’ lifestyle. Obviously in that world it is seen as far more important to rouse ones disciples irate and have them click on meaningless polls than to actually address issues – why deal with the fallout of abysmal leadership failures when you can click on some secular newspapers web poll and tilt it to 75% in your flavor. It is all rather ridiculous. Who are they kidding?