Papal politics or piety?

Close-up of the flag of the Vatican

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story about how the Vatican handled abuse claims against the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the worldwide order Legionnaires of Christ. The story, which focuses on Vatican politics, hasn't gotten as much play as the previous Times story attempting to link Pope Benedict XVI to an abuse case in Wisconsin. But this story also focuses on then-Cardinal Ratzinger's role in handling the many claims against Father Maciel. The Vatican announced last week that Benedict would appoint a special delegate to run the Legionnaires and was establishing a commission to examine its constitution. In 2006, Benedict removed Maciel from his priestly duties. But the story uses more than a few unnamed sources to tell us that Benedict avoided the case early on. Here's the whole point of the Times article:

A close look at the record shows that the case was marked by the same delays and bureaucratic caution that have emerged in the handling of other sexual abuse matters crossing Benedict's desk, whether as an archbishop in Munich or a cardinal in Rome. Benedict's supporters believe he was trying to take action on the Maciel case but was thwarted by other powerful church officials.

But advocates for Father Maciel's victims say that the Vatican's eventual investigation and reckoning in the case were too little, too late.

Jason Berry of the National Catholic Reporter has done some great reporting on how Father Maciel was able to cultivate allies in the Vatican -- by buying them off, basically. His work is mentioned in this article, too.

As much as the story attempts to link the delays in dealing with the case to Ratzinger, Cardinal Angelo Sodano is the one who comes off as the culprit. But it's this part of the story that I want to highlight:

In 2001, all clerical sex abuse cases had been ordered sent to Cardinal Ratzinger's Congregation. [Italian journalist Sandro] Magister said he believed that as the cardinal became increasingly aware of the problem's magnitude, he ordered that old cases -- including the Maciel matter -- be re-examined.

And in late 2004, it was clear that Cardinal Ratzinger would be playing an important role in a future conclave to elect the next pope. And with the pope's health and power waning, Cardinal Ratzinger may have felt a freer hand in acting against a figure protected by others in the Vatican -- possibly to clear the decks for the next pope, possibly to remove a stain on John Paul's record or his own, should he be considered for the papacy.

One of the worst things a reporter can do is make claims about the motivation of actors in the story. Unless you're a reporter with a special talent for mindreading, I guess. So these motivation claims really shouldn't have been made. Particularly since they are sourced to precisely no one.

But isn't it interesting that when the reporters were pulling motivations out of the air, they didn't suggest that Ratzinger might have actually moved against Maciel because he wanted to do the right thing and he finally had the opportunity? There are people who would suggest just that. Including Magister, who has made such statements on the record. And in this interview, he speaks very favorably of the Pope's work in eradicating "the filth" in the priesthood -- also suggesting he's motivated not by politics but by a desire to purify the church.

In 2008, John Allen quoted president of the U.S. bishops conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago about Benedict's motivations:

"It's important to say that Benedict comes with his own sense of that crisis. He has read all the case files, and he was profoundly affected by that. He has a deep sense of compassion for the victims, along with a deep sense of how the vocation of the priesthood has been betrayed by these crimes and sins."

Or you could take the words of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, speaking of Ratzinger's role in helping US bishops address the sex scandals here:

"the one individual... who seemed to grasp the severity of the issue, to be most supportive of the direction that we were taking, and to encourage us to complete the work that we had begun... H[is] was, without a doubt, the most supportive voice at the table, and [he] always seemed to possess the greatest comprehension of the seriousness and the significance of reacting and responding with a strong action... Obviously, the details needed to be reviewed not merely by Cardinal Ratzinger, but by the other heads of the dicasteries, and so there were points of discussion -- but in the long run, his was a voice of incredible importance to convince his confreres in the Curia. He gave us the kind of support and the kind of encouragement that allowed us to keep pushing forward."

It's also worth noting that the Times doesn't just ignore these on-the-record voices but fails to put Benedict's action against Father Maciel in context of larger changes he made to solve the sex abuse problems in the church.

I think that this issue -- the ascribing of political motivations to a man when those close to him would ascribe pious motivations -- really gets at the heart of why so many people think the Times is on a mission against Benedict. Or, as Ken Woodward claimed in his "Church of the Times" that tmatt looked at recently, are they culturally incapable of being fair to Catholicism and this Pope?

As a reader who mentioned this story to us wrote, "the American newspaper of record is unwilling to even acknowledge the idea that Pope Benedict might be driven by considerations that are not merely self-serving or formed by institutional necessity."

That does seem to make the case that we're witnessing a clash of cultures and a weak spot in the Times coverage.

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