We've discussed a bit of the European media's coverage of various Roman Catholic sex scandals. The German press has been working on stories dealing with Pope Benedict XVI's time there as a diocesan bishop, during which one child-molesting priest was transferred. The news has been terribly sad to read. And the New York Times has also gotten into the fray with some hard-hitting coverage. Here's Laurie Goodstein's recent story questioning whether then-Cardinal Ratzinger failed to act with one troublesome case involving untold numbers of deaf children in the scandal-plagued Milwaukee diocese. I haven't really highlighted the coverage from the New York Times because I didn't really have much to say. The piece was well researched and written and I thought that Goodstein was careful to not overhype the links -- as some of the press across the pond have been doing and as some folks have been doing in response to her reporting.
Still, some folks have gotten a bit carried away. And it doesn't seem to be calming down much. Religion News Service's lead story right now is "Will the Pope resign?" What can I say about it other than Andrew Sullivan is actually quoted in the piece?
Into this rather emotional fray comes the inestimable John L. Allen, of National Catholic Reporter with some very helpful words for people attempting to understand what is going on with media coverage:
Despite complaints in some quarters that all this is about wounding the pope and/or the church, raising these questions is entirely legitimate. Anyone involved in church leadership at the most senior levels for as long as Benedict XVI inevitably bears some responsibility for the present mess. My newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, today called editorially for full disclosure about the pope's record on the sexual abuse crisis, and it now seems abundantly clear that only such transparency can resolve the hard questions facing Benedict.
Yet as always, the first casualty of any crisis is perspective.
If you are in any way following this story, I can't recommend Allen's piece enough. It is long, but the most informative and balanced essay you can read on the topic. Read it here. He manages to illuminate the controversy without excusing any wrongdoing.
His first point is that the media have inaccurately characterized the role that Ratzinger had in the Vatican. Some have made it seem as if he was the point man for the sex abuse crisis from 1981 until 2005. Allen says that Ratzinger didn't have any direct responsibility managing the overall Vatican response until four years before he became pope and that the Vatican had a different system for handling cases prior to that:
One certainly can question how Ratzinger's office handled those exceptional cases, and the record seems painfully slow and ambivalent in comparison with how similar accusations would be dealt with today. Moreover, Ratzinger was a senior Vatican official from 1981 forward, and therefore he shares in the corporate failure in Rome to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis until terribly late in the game.
To suggest, however, that Ratzinger was the Vatican's "point man" on sex abuse for almost twenty-five years, and to fault him for the mishandling of every case that arose between 1981 and 2001, is misleading. Prior to 2001, Ratzinger had nothing personally to do with the vast majority of sex abuse cases, even the small percentage which wound up in Rome.
Another issue is a 2001 letter dealing with the sex abuse that some in the media are calling a "smoking gun" proving that Ratzinger was trying to hide the problem. Allen says that this interpretation ignores the actual situation in the Vatican:
Far from being seen as part of the problem, at the time it was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse really is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved. Prior to that 2001 motu proprio and Ratzinger's letter, it wasn't clear that anyone in Rome acknowledged responsibility for managing the crisis; from that moment forward, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would play the lead role.
The thing is that beginning in 2001, Ratzinger's job was to review all files on every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world. If I can recommend yet another excellent John L. Allen essay, read this one from last week where he argues that Ratzinger and his staff underwent a "conversion experience" because of this task. Prior to that year, Allen says, he came off as just another cardinal in denial. After that experience, he spoke openly of the "filth" in the church and began prosecuting abusers. It's a fascinating read.
The final point he talks about is something that was brought up in The New York Times piece as evidence of Ratzinger's inaction. Here's how the Times put it:
The Vatican's inaction is not unusual. Only 20 percent of the 3,000 accused priests whose cases went to the church's doctrinal office between 2001 and 2010 were given full church trials, and only some of those were defrocked, according to a recent interview in an Italian newspaper with Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the chief internal prosecutor at that office. An additional 10 percent were defrocked immediately. Ten percent left voluntarily. But a majority -- 60 percent -- faced other "administrative and disciplinary provisions," Monsignor Scicluna said, like being prohibited from celebrating Mass.
Allen says that people who have followed the story closely have the exact opposite impression of "inaction." He says that American bishops actually hoped to avoid trials altogether. He gives an example of a priest who Archbishop Donald Wuerl, now of Washington, removed following allegations of sexual abuse. The priest appealed, got reinstated and Wuerl had to take the case to Rome himself, eventually prevailing. It worked but many bishops hoped that there could be a better way to handle problem priests without going to canonical trials.
But the American bishops' proposal against trials ran into opposition in Rome, Allen says, on the grounds that everyone deserves their day in court. However, this view made the Vatican seem more concerned about the rights of priests accused of abuse than victims. So a special commission brokered a compromise where Ratzinger's shop would decide which cases got full trials on a case-by-case basis. Apparently the fear at the time was that Ratzinger's office would give all priests trials, delaying closure for victims indefinitely. But in 60 percent of the cases, bishops were authorized to take immediate action:
The fact that only 20 percent of the cases were subjected to full canonical trial has been hailed as a belated grasp in Rome of the need for swift and sure justice, and a victory for the more aggressive American approach to the crisis. It should be noted, too, that bypassing trials has been roundly criticized by some canon lawyers and Vatican officials as a betrayal of the due process safeguards in church law.
Hence to describe that 20 percent figure as a sign of "inaction" cannot help but seem, to anyone who's been paying attention, rather ironic. In truth, handling 60 percent of the cases through the stroke of a bishop's pen has, up to now, more often been cited as evidence of exaggerated and draconian action by Ratzinger and his deputies.
If the goal of media coverage of these cases is an improvement in how the Vatican handles the "filth" in the church, Allen's essay does more to move all sides into a place of informed discussion. Excellent work.