Lost in translation, Vatican edition

A woman misusing a translation dictionary in a Paris cafe

For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, it's difficult to read the stories attempting to link Pope Benedict XVI to abuse of children. For our purposes here at GetReligion, I hope that it's possible to simultaneously condemn the abuse of children that has taken place, to criticize the Vatican's handling of the problem over the years, and to hope that the media work to cover this story more responsibly than we've been seeing. A couple of days ago, I was reading this Associated Press article about the Vatican claiming that the media was engaged in an anti-Catholic "hate" campaign. The article was not a great example of evenhanded reporting. Or even informed reporting, really. It claimed that when Cardinal Julian Herranz talked about the church's "defense of life" it was code for anti-abortion efforts. Opposition to abortion is certainly an important part of sanctity of life efforts, but not limited to that, of course. Oh, the story also claimed that Benedict had ignored abuse victims.

But it was another part of the story that intrigued me. It was about Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone:

Bertone, now the Holy See's secretary of state but formerly Benedict's deputy when the future pope, then-called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Vatican's morals office, has himself been swept up in the scandals.

During a May 1998 meeting at the Vatican, Bertone told Wisconsin bishops to halt a church trial against an ailing priest who was accused of sexually abusing 200 deaf children, according to a Vatican transcript. The priest died soon afterward.

"It's not true, it's not true! We have documented the opposite," ANSA quoted Bertone as saying in Chile. "Let's not talk about this topic now, because otherwise we'll be here all day verifying precisely the action taken by me and by his eminence."

And then the report moved on to more imbalance. But why didn't we learn what this "documentation" of the opposite was about? Was it true that the Vatican had proof that hadn't been published by the Associated Press or New York Times or other media outlets? If so, why wasn't it discussed in this story. And if not, why didn't the reporter make that clear?

Well, I think I may know what Bertone was talking about. And I'm rather surprised that none of the major media outlets -- all billing their current stories as attempts to uncover the truth about a possible Vatican cover-up -- have written about it.

This gets a bit tricky, so bear with me. First, let's call recall the New York Times piece that really got things heated up stateside when it tried to link Pope Benedict XVI to an abuse case from 1970s Wisconsin. John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter's ace Vatican expert, already noted problems with the way the piece characterized Ratzinger's handling of the sexual abuse crisis. The judge who oversaw the Wisconsin priest's trial in the 1990s, Father Thomas Brundage, criticized media outlets for not contacting him for his take. And the Vatican's Cardinal Levada criticized the story for lacking fairness.

One of the best things about that article was that it included links to a large number of primary source documents. Some of these are in Italian and some are in English. One of the most important documents is only available in Italian, unless you count a rudimentary, machine-based translation that key player Father Thomas Brundage had provided. A professional translator looked at the original document and, well, it looks like the New York Times probably should have considered getting a professional translator to look at it, too, before writing up its story.

The translator, a woman named Lori Pieper, sent her work over to Jimmy Akin at the National Catholic Register. The professional translation shows that the previous translation had some basic errors. So when Cardinal Bertone refers to the need to prove in a canon trial that the crime has been committed "in the strict sense" he did not, as had been reported, say it needed to be proved "in strict secrecy."

Akin exhaustively explains his take on the documents but here's his takeaway about the memo summarizing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's meeting about the pedophile priest:

* Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was not present at the meeting. It was run by the Secretary of the CDF, then-Archbishop Bertone.

* Cardinal Ratzinger's name never comes up, making it impossible to determine anything regarding his involvement in this case.

* In the meeting Bertone points out the difficulties in proceeding with canonical trial for Fr. Murphy, but he does not forbid one.

* The chief difficulty, according to Bertone, is gathering the needed proof against Murphy given the passage of time (not Murphy's advanced age or ill-health, neither of which is mentioned at all).

* Bertone is appalled at how long this case has been allowed to linger and by the fact that Murphy apparently still has the ability to celebrate Mass for the deaf community in Milwaukee. He insists that this be rectified.

* He also insists that Fr. Murphy be made to reflect on the gravity of his crimes and to furnish proof of his repentance.

* If he fails to do so, Murphy can have additional penalties inflicted on him, including "dismissal from the clerical state" (i.e., laicization, "defrocking").

* The CDF is thus not opposed to defrocking Murphy.

One of the more striking things, to me at least, from the translation of the memo is how livid Cardinal Bertone appears to be at the Milwaukee and Superior dioceses' handling of the case. Some 35 years have passed since the crimes took place and the original archdiocese didn't keep records from the original complaints. According to Bertone, that would make a canon trial very difficult since canon law requires rigorous proof. Another problem with an effective canon trial is that this priest was allegedly committing his crimes in the confessional and since priests are forbidden from revealing anything that happens there, he would have difficulty defending himself and that might further make the case difficult to prosecute.

Finally, the meeting reveals some actual confusion about whether or not the crimes took place in the confessional. Since Ratzinger's office didn't even have the mandate to handle sexual abuse cases, the whole thing had to hinge on abuse of the sacrament of confession. That -- and not sexual abuse -- was why Ratzinger's office was involved. The CDF basically thought a canon trial would be extremely difficult to successfully prosecute (although it didn't specifically rule one out and it encouraged that recourse if the priest in any way violated new restrictions on his ministry).

Anyway, in light of these issues, it's interesting to note how this was written up in the Times:

Figure With Hands To Ears

But the effort to dismiss Father Murphy came to a sudden halt after the priest appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.

In an interview, Archbishop Weakland said that he recalled a final meeting at the Vatican in May 1998 in which he failed to persuade Cardinal Bertone and other doctrinal officials to grant a canonical trial to defrock Father Murphy. (In 2002, Archbishop Weakland resigned after it became public that he had an affair with a man and used church money to pay him a settlement.)

Archbishop Weakland said this week in an interview, "The evidence was so complete, and so extensive that I thought he should be reduced to the lay state, and also that that would bring a certain amount of peace in the deaf community."

And yet, in the original at least, the reasons given by Bertone have nothing to do with the priest's appeal and everything to do with the evidence being incomplete or difficult to prosecute. It seems like that perspective should have at least been included.

Catholic News Agency says the properly translated memo shows problems with the Associated Press coverage as well:

While the AP said Archbishop Bertone "decided the alleged molestation occurred too long ago," it did not note the problems in the case such as a lack of records in the archdiocesan archives. The memo notes that the length of time since the crimes occurred had rendered a civil lawsuit impossible and posed "the true problem" for a canonical trial as well. ...

The AP also claimed Fr. Murphy was "spared a defrocking" because he was "protected by the Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope." The memo reconfirms that Cardinal Ratzinger was not in attendance in the meeting.

While the AP depicted penitence and restrictions on Fr. Murphy's ministry as lesser alternative to laicization, the memo says Archbishop Bertone stressed "it is unacceptable for him to be able to go and celebrate the Eucharist in the deaf community in Milwaukee."

Before the unreliability of the documentation was revealed, the Times and Associated Press stories had been criticized for misrepresenting other facts of the case, misunderstanding the Vatican judicial system, and imputing the actions of subordinates to the Pope himself.

Akin says there's plenty of room to criticize how the Vatican handled this and other cases but that the story is being inaccurately written by media outlets.

So National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency have the news. And the Italian political newspaper Il Foglio discussed it yesterday. But, as of now, I have seen no mention of the mistranslation in mainstream media. Let me know if you see anything.

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