About that timeline . . .

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates an evening vigil service in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to mark the end of the Church's year of the priest, on June 10, 2010. A year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to root out pedophile priests.Thousands of priest from around the world gathered in St. Peter's square in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal. During the ceremony Pope Benedict XVI strongly defended celibacy for priests but he didn't directly mention the clergy abuse scandal but he referred to what he called 'secondary scandals' that showed 'our own insufficiencies and sins.' PHOTO by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Far and away the best defense of the New York Times article we've been discussing comes from Mark Silk, Trinity College professor of religion and public life. Over at Beliefnet, he writes:

[T]he big takeout by Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger in last Friday's NYT is no hatchet job. It is, by my lights, a piece of balanced, well contextualized reporting that added some essential insider commentary and a couple of very important evidentiary pieces to the jigsaw puzzle being put together to show how the Vatican has handled the sexual abuse scandals of the past quarter-century.

He specifically defends the Times accusation that Benedict clearly had the power to act but failed to do so. He says the critics of the piece don't really claim otherwise, only defending Ratzinger's actions in the weakest sense.

He says that much of the confusion over handling of sexual abuse cases during the 1980s and 1990s resulted from uncertainty over which office had responsibility and what to do about the 1983 law enacting a 5-year statute of limitations:

The Times' revelation that the supposedly new regime put in place by Ratzinger in 2001 was in fact little more than a reassertion of norms set forth in a document quietly promulgated in 1922 and reiterated in 1962 is highly significant. It is now evident that the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)] all along had responsibility for all sexual abuse cases and that there was no statute of limitations.

Right, except that the key phrase is "now evident." The article itself paints a picture of mass confusion prior to that new regime being put in place in 2001. Anyway, Silk asks if Ratzinger and his staff were aware and if they were aware, why didn't they inform bishops. He notes that the Times article says that Archbishop Wilson had raised the issue of the 1922 document with the CDF in late 1990s and then goes on:

The critics beat up the Times for pointing out that, under Ratzinger, the CDF was devoting itself to such matters as cracking down on liberation theologians, sorting out marriage annulments, and determining the legitimacy of apparitions of the the Virgin Mary. This, they say, is unwarranted editorializing. But surely it's important to know what else the CDF had on its plate, and what Ratzinger's priorities were. Isn't this the kind of context the lack of which media criticism is always lamenting?

A few points. The first is that the actual timeline of the Times article was a mess. It covers events from the 1980s (e.g. Father Gilbert Gauthe's 1984 pedophilia trial and the CDF's denunciations of liberation theology in 1984 and 1986) through the 2000 Vatican meeting with English-speaking bishops. But there are very few dates between. And even those dates are vague. Was Wilson's "late 1990s" discussion in 1996 or 1999, a year prior to the meeting? The timeline is crucial to the point Silk is analyzing -- that the CDF dithered instead of taking decisive action.

The Times article demonstrates that things happened during this period of time -- that Crimen Sollicitationis came to light, that a few canon lawyers tried to get movement going in favor of it. Archbishop Wilson says he "stumbled" across it in the early 1990s and "eventually" learned there was debate among canon lawyers as to whether it applied.

Canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi places the discovery of Crimen Sollicitationis around 1994. If that's true, all of that "context" about 1980s sex crimes and liberation theology is moot. You can't have debate about whether this gave authority to CDF prior to its discovery, obviously.

A quick sidenote to point out that many people criticized the line about liberation theology because of the way it described liberation theology and its opponents. Let's look at the line again:

As Father Gauthe was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine.

Sigh. So, again, neither of these things occurred during the time when CDF is alleged to have dithered. And come on -- that description of liberation theology couldn't be more biased. It is simply unfair to say that priests were being disciplined for helping poor people. Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter said it best:

Cardinal Ratzinger did not, in fact, punish liberation theologians "for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed." He took steps against Liberation Theology because it was built on a faulty anthropology, entailed a materialist analysis of the human person, and reduced the idea of the "Kingdom of God" to a more just earthly regime.

Anyway, let's get back to the story. What does the timeline look like after 1994? Unfortunately, it's still really fuzzy. And that's a shame because I think that's the best part of the story and could have the potential to be a real bombshell, if reported accurately. We don't learn anything about when or if the majority of canonists learn of the 1922 statute. We don't learn when it became a major debate. We don't learn anything about how the debate proceeded, when it broke into the open or what, if any, role Cardinal Ratzinger played in the debate. We learn nothing about when he became aware of it or what his position was. The only information we have is that the issue was contested for six to seven years before the Pope clarifies matters and that Ratzinger had spoken up in support of the English-speaking bishops in 2000. Everything else is hazy. And for an article that attempts to indict the future Pope as a foot-dragging agent of evil, these are the kinds of details that are key.

Still, I'll say it again, for a good defense of the Times piece on the merits, you could do much worse than read Silk's piece.

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