Where is Dan Brown when you need him? The story of Archbishop Róbert Bezák is ready made for the Da Vinci Code treatment. Yet the press has bungled a Catholic story -- the Associated Press piece that ran in most U.S. newspapers devoted more space to a rehash of the clergy pedophile scandal than the church conflict in the Slovak Republic.
This story has gays, Nazi sympathizers, Communist secret police agents, liberal Catholics, Vatican intrigue, and the "Rottweiler" -- Pope Benedict XVI -- playing the heavy. And what we are offered is the tired (and irrelevant) clergy abuse saga.
Our tale begins -- in press terms -- with the announcement from the Vatican that Archbishop Róbert Bezák of Trnava had been sacked. The AP story opens with:
The pope fired a 52-year-old Slovak bishop on Monday for apparently mismanaging his diocese in a rare show of papal power over his bishops.
Usually when bishops run into trouble – either for alleged moral lapses or management problems – they are persuaded by the Vatican to resign. But Pope Benedict XVI has become increasingly willing to forcibly remove bishops who refuse to step down, sacking three others in the last year alone.
His willingness to do so raises questions about whether he would take the same measures against bishops who covered up for sexually abusive priests. So far he has not.
As you can see, while the story ostensibly is about Archbishop Bezák, it really is another opportunity to club the pope and the Catholic Church. We do learn a bit about the unemployed archbishop. The AP story states:
On Monday, the Vatican said Benedict had "relieved from pastoral care" Bishop Robert Bezak of Trnava, Slovakia. No reason was given, but Italian news reports suggested administrative problems were to blame and Slovak news reports quoted Bezak as saying he thought his criticism of his predecessor may have had a role.
But this detour into news soon ends and we go back to assumptions and assertions.
The exercise of the pope's ability to fire a bishop has important implications, particularly concerning bishops who mishandle pedophile priests.
In the face of U.S. lawsuits seeking to hold the pope ultimately responsible for abusive priests, the Holy See has argued that bishops are largely masters of their dioceses and that the pope doesn't really control them. The Vatican has thus sought to limit its own liability, arguing that the pope doesn't exercise sufficient control over the bishops to be held responsible for their bungled response to priests who rape children.
The ability of the pope to actively fire bishops, and not just passively accept their resignations, would seem to undercut the Vatican's argument of a hands-off pope.
And so on and so forth. I've read this sort of thing dozens of times before and repetition does not make it any more newsworthy.
The front page of the 23 July issue of Pravda -- not that Pravda, but the other one, the Bratislava daily newspaper -- is devoted to a discussion of Church/State relations in the Slovak Republic and the fallout from the Bezák affair. The Pravda lede begins:
[Slovak] churches will receive more than 37 million euros in state support this year, and from this amount 21 million euros will be given to the Catholic Church. The state is facing a financial shortfall and church support is a huge burden, but so far the government has been reluctant even to begin discussing the separation of church and state.
... The debate on the separation of church and state is once again in the public eye due to the events surrounding the appeal [of the dismissal] of Trnava Archbishop Robert Bezák ...
The focus of the Pravda story is on the return or restitution to the Catholic Church of properties confiscated by the Communist regime. The neighboring Czech Republic has been debating the issue in Parliament and the Slovak government is about to follow suit. However, the no-compensation group has a strong political base, Pravda notes.
One expert is cited in the article saying that during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Czechoslovak Republic of 1919 to 1938 and the Nazi-puppet Slovak Republic of 1938 to 1945 the state owned church properties, which were entrusted to the Catholic Church for the use and benefit of the people. "Each year [the Catholic Church] had to account to the state for the management of the property it used."
The article then returns to Archbishop Bezák, with one expert saying the dismissal of the Archbishop of Trnava for his progressive social views was grounds not to compensate the church as it could not be trusted to put the interests of the people first. The bottom line -- the Bezák story is not another episode in the clergy abuse saga but falls into another popular press theme -- good liberal Catholics, bad conservative Catholics.
A 14 July story in TASR, the state news agency, reports that one of the letters of complaint lodged against Archbishop Bezák found its way to the TA3 television network.
Among the accusations listed by the Vatican in the documents are Bezak's selection of homosexual priests and those having illegitimate children as his close associates, and alleged mockery of the cassock as a piece of clothing worn by sorcerers, while he himself wears jeans or sweatpants. The Vatican also asked whether it's true that Bezak speaks of the pope merely as "Mr. Pope" in the public, and describes other Slovak bishops as "old and fogy", while he is a "modern bishop and enlightened liberal".
Bezak in a response said that his predecessor Jan Sokol didn't alert him to any priests in the diocese that would have "dubious reputation", while he isn't interested in any ill-based accusations and observes the principle of benefit of the doubt instead. Similarly, Bezak rejected the accusation that he would have ever mocked the cassock and have worn indecent dress. He also said that he has never described himself as a "modern bishop and enlightened liberal", as he had been in office less than three years, which was too little to define himself in any way. He further said that he describes the pope with due reverence, using terms such as "pope, pope Benedict XVI, Holy Father, Holy Father Benedict XVI and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI".
If the TASR story is true, one faction of the Slovak Church complained to the Vatican about the new archbishop's liberal social views and progressive lifestyle. The story continues to build:
Drawing upon reports published by the Slovak newspaper SME, the English-language Slovak Spectator stated local protests by some Catholics followed the bishops removal. It offered further comments from political leaders perturbed by the Vatican's removal of the young archbishop. Part of the dispute, the Slovak press reports, arises from the sharply different styles and personalities of the former archbishop and the new archbishop.
Bezák, aged 52, replaced controversial former archbishop Ján Sokol three years ago. The step was widely welcomed given Sokol’s repeated praise of President Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who led the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state during which, among other atrocities, tens of thousands of Slovakia’s Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. Bezák won popular respect when he announced that Tiso should have resigned as soon as the first train transporting Jews left the country.
... [archbishop] Ján Sokol is known by Slovaks as one of the more controversial personalities in the local Roman Catholic Church, especially because his name appeared on the payroll of the communist-era secret police, the ŠtB.
Now I've not found an Opus Dei angle to the story so far, but a Gay-Nazi-Commie-Catholic-Conspiracy story is the sort of thing that religion reporters lie awake at night dreaming about.
It is not a crime for a journalist to run a short item. I am not criticizing the AP for being unaware of the back story of Archbishop Bezák. What troubles me is the padding of this story by the AP.
Yes, I get it. You don't like Benedict and you are suspicious of the institution. But that sort of heavy breathing and speculation is inappropriate in a news story. The AP should have reported the fact of the archbishop's dismissal and the Vatican's decision to decline to comment. Droning on and on about bad Benedict and the clergy abuse scandal served no purpose. Simply put, by playing to its prejudices, the AP blinded itself and its readers to the real, much more interesting, story.