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Columnists

Pope, abuse

Paul Vallely

Just because you're paranoid, as the old gag has it, doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Eight years ago Joseph Ratzinger said that press reports on paedophile priests were motivated by an 'intentional, manipulated... desire to discredit the church'. Goodness knows what he is saying privately now after the avalanche of media coverage of the clerical abuse scandals in the US and Ireland, with more to come in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands - not to mention less secular countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy where disclosure will be more problematic. The Pope's dismissal of the 'petty gossip of dominant opinion' sounded pretty hollow.

But just because the Church is guilty doesn't mean that every criticism levelled against it is fair. People are so wound up now that in many cases the facts have become irrelevant as they believe what they want to believe, regardless. One Sunday Times columnist even went so far as to announce that her parish priest had been cleared of child abuse 'which was nice for him but didn't really work for me because I don't want any of my children left alone with adult men in any context where the words "child abuse" are hovering in the air.' That context, she made clear, had 'broadened to include the entire church'. There is a crude McCarthyism about such guilt by association. It was ironic that she wrote on Palm Sunday when the fickle crowd which shouted 'Hosanna!' turned in a few short days to one of 'Crucify Him!' Give a dog-collar a bad name...

To say that is not to seek to defend the Church. The abuse of children by priests is a gross violation of trust and an inversion of everything in the Gospel they are supposed to preach. And the instinct of the institution to cover up scandal rather than rooting it out is shameful. But dubious allegations and irresponsible reporting will only let the Church off the hook.

The desire to rope in the Pope personally is a perfect example of this. He has been accused, by the New York Times, of three things. He did not alert the civilian authorities to an abuser when he was Archbishop of Munich, but sent him for psychiatric treatment, and then allowed him to return to priestly duties with access to children. Later in Rome he terminated the canonical trial of a priest who had abused as many as 200 deaf boys because the abuser was old and ill. And he wrote to bishops in 2001 ordering them to enforce secrecy, on pain of excommunication, in such cases.

He has a prima facie defence of all these points. The Munich case was handled not by him but by his archdiocesan vicar general who has issued a statement taking 'full responsibility' for the decision to return the priest to ministry. The prosecutor of the abuser of the deaf boys has come forward to say that - contrary to all press reports - the trial was still proceeding when the abuser died, that the NY Times relied on a document supposedly hand-written by him which was not in his writing, and that not one single news organisation had contacted him to check the facts. On the question of secrecy, the Pope's defenders say, he was ordering nothing more than a judicial confidentiality to protect the good name of witnesses, victims and the accused until the trial is completed.

Many people are not disposed to believe all that. Ratzinger was a micro-manager, they say, who would not have allowed his deputy in Munich to take such a decision. Rome was not pursuing the case against the deaf boys' abuser with sufficient vigour. The secrecy endemic to the Church's handling of abuse cases went far wider than the preliminary phase of any investigations.

But the Pope's defenders can provide equally plausible circumstantial support. The Munich archdiocese had more than 1,000 priests and Ratzinger was too busy to take hands-on decisions. He was made a cardinal within three months of getting the job in 1977, had to participate in two conclaves to elect new popes in 1978, was summoned by John Paul II to support the fledgling Solidarity movement in Poland and was in 1980 made secretary to the highly contentious Synod for the Family. He was so hands-off in Munich that a group of priests there issued a letter complaining they had virtually no contact or dialogue with him before he was whisked off permanently to Rome in 1982.

Then it was only in 2001 that responsibility for the discipline of priests was switched from the Roman Rota to Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the three years that followed 3,000 sexual abuse cases were handled so expeditiously that other Vatican officials complained that Ratzinger was ignoring the proper process by taking direct action in 60 per cent of the cases to remove the priest from ministry or expel him from the priesthood.

Certainly it is true that among his very first public acts as Benedict XVI was the barring from public life of two prominent charismatic figures, Gino Burresi and Marcial Maciel, both of whom as founders of religious orders had been protected by the previous pope from widespread accusations of sex abuse. He tightened up canon law on abuse and introduced a fast-track dismissal procedure. He became the first pope to speak openly about the crisis on his visits to the US and Australia. He was the first pope to meet victims, the first to issue an apology, in Ireland, along with an unprecedented public reprimand to bishops.

So who should we believe? It's a question of judgement and there are pointers in both directions. But we need to be aware that we are making judgements and not be carried away by the hysteria generated by bigotry mixed with bogus facts. There may, of course, be more yet to come out. But the key task for people of genuine good will is to work out how to extricate ourselves from a sordid and sorry mess - not to dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.