Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Losing Patience With the Vatican

Losing Patience With the Vatican
by Andrew Walsh

Even in the hands of relatively buttoned-down practitioners of mainstream American journalism, blogs are megaphones. So Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ conservative columnist, was engaging in conscious hyperbole when his June 9 blog in the Atlantic carried the headline, “The Catholic Church is finished.”

“This was the year when the cover-up of priestly sex abuse, a long-simmering crisis for Catholicism, became something much, much bigger,” Douthat wrote. And, indeed, coverage of the crisis in all forms of media during early 2010 surged to the highest level since 2002.

The surge occurred because the abuse crisis came home to Europe, with scandals convulsing Ireland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. Above all, the coverage focused attention on the Vatican and on high-level church leaders, with a cast of characters including the Belgian police, German Chancelor Angela Merkel, and the New York Times showering the church leadership with very hostile questions about their handling of the crisis over the past 20 years.

For Pope Benedict XVI, that meant relentless and skeptical questions about his handling of cases when he was archbishop of Munich in the 1970s, about his service during the 1980s and 1990s in the Vatican as Pope John Paul II’s right hand man, and about his decisions more recently as pope. By March 25, blogger David Gibson ruefully noted in his column that the question had unavoidably become, “What Did the Pope Know and When Did He Know It?”

While the main point of Douthat’s post was actually that the Catholic Church has weathered worse problems and worse leadership in the course of its long history, it didn’t carry the emotional punch of the rest of the message: “If the Church isn’t finished, period, it can still be finished for certain people, in certain contexts. And so it is in this case: for millions in Europe and America, Catholicism is probably permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, as in many previous dark chapters in the Church’s history, the leaders entrusted with that gospel have nobody to blame but themselves.”

The post provoked widespread reaction, much of it troubled, like former New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels’ response on the blog. “Is the church finished?” asked Steinfels, who as both a journalist and scholar has tended to take moderate positions on Catholic matters. “The church leadership’s inability to respond adequately is certainly a symptom of something deep seated. More and more, I contemplate the possibility that Douthat may be right.”

Since the Boston phase of the crisis broke in 2002, the abuse scandal has been more about the Catholic leadership’s handling of allegations than about the actual cases of clerical misconduct, bad as they may be. As the Dallas Morning News reported in its coverage of the Dallas meeting where the American hierarchy adopted its “one strike and you’re out” policy, only a few percent of all priests faced accusations of sexual misconduct with minors. On the other hand, as many as two-thirds of the then-sitting bishops seem to have pursued policies that obscured, minimized, or ignored charges of misconduct.

Since then, there have been many apologies for misconduct by priests and many resolutions to prevent it in the future. Indeed, this spring brought the fullest and most emotional expressions of penitence from the pontiff himself. “Pope Benedict begged forgiveness from God and victims of child sexual abuse by priests on Friday and vowed that the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again,” Reuters reported on June 11, in a story on a talk the pope gave to 15,000 priests gathered in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.

Hundreds of priests and the handful of bishops who have faced charges that they committed misconduct have been removed from office. But Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict, have not been willing to publicly discipline the many hierarchs who failed to protect vulnerable children and adolescents. The marquee example remains Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who was forced to resign in disgrace in 2002, but immediately reassigned to a place of honor in Rome.

Nothing better demonstrates the depth of the world’s current skepticism and the astonishing loss of deference suffered by the Catholic hierarchy as a result of the scandal than the events in Belgium in late June and early July. Police detained the nation’s entire Catholic hierarchy for nine hours while conducting a sweeping set of raids that involved seizure of church files, searches of church residences, and confiscation of computers and cell phones. The crypts of two recently deceased Belgian bishops were also searched to make sure that damaging documentation of church investigations of reports of sexual misconduct by bishops were not hidden there.

Howls of outrage rose from the pope as well as from Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who complained that this harassment exceeded even the behavior of communist governments, but these met with a cool response from Belgian prosecutors. On July 13, the New York Times’ Doreen Carvajal quoted prosecutors saying they were taking action on a formal complaint. “We are working on a specific case about a specific declaration,” said spokesman Jean-Marc Meilleur. “We are not starting an inquisition against the church.” Meilleur noted that eventual charges might involve both those “who committed the crime” and “those who didn’t help someone in danger.”

Earlier Times stories suggested that the police action had been triggered by a retired Belgian magistrate named Godlieve Halsberge, who from 2001 to 2008 had been in charge of an internal church commission investigating allegations of clerical misconduct. On June 29, Carvajal noted that Halsberge had resigned her position and become a vocal critic of the church leadership’s approach to the crisis, complaining that it had not released all its records to the commission.

In June, after receiving an anonymous phone call from someone alleging that the church was hiding relevant documents, Halsberge turned over her own copies to police and filed a formal complaint. In the background was the case of the 73-year-old bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in April after admitting to molesting “a boy in my close entourage” some 30 years before.

The Times reported on July 13 that the victim was Vangheluwe’s nephew, who had been molested from age 10 for about eight years and who had spent much of his adult life coping with the psychological consequences. Some in the man’s family had been pushing the Belgian hierarchy to take action against Vangheluwe for a number of years, and accusations circulated that Belgium’s top bishop, Cardinal Gerhard Danneels, had consistently squelched efforts to investigate before his retirement last year.

Carvajal quoted the Rev. Rik Deville, a retired Belgian priest who has been a loud critic of the church’s failure to change its secretive and often failed efforts to curtail clerical misconduct. Deville said he had complained about Vangheluwe to Danneels in 1996, but that “the cardinal listened impatiently, glancing frequently at his watch.” Weeks later, “Father Deville received a letter from the cardinal. ‘Stop making unfounded public accusations against the church and its functionaries if you don’t have proof,’ it read.”

Earlier this year, relatives of the victim, frustrated by Danneels’s inaction, began to pepper the entire Belgian hierarchy with emails. On April 24, Danneels’ replacement, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard announced Vangheluwe’s resignation. “We are aware of the crisis of confidence his resignation will set in motion,” Léonard said, according to a brief story in the Times. But Léonard “stressed that the Catholic Church in Belgium was determined to ‘turn over a leaf from a not-very-distant past when such matters would pass in silence or be concealed.’”

Among other things, the Vangheluwe affair triggered a flood of complaints of clerical misconduct to the Belgian internal church commission. After handling about 30 cases in the previous decade, the commission received 475 complaints in two months. (The German newsweekly Der Speigel reported in June that a new hotline system to file report claims of misconduct in Germany had been inundated with 4,500 complaints on its first day of operation.)

It was clear that Belgium would not follow Ireland’s lead and grant clerics immunity from prosecution (see Religion in the News, Winter 2010). Nor would it permit the church to investigate complaints itself and run its own disciplinary processes.

The Belgian crisis was not the only problem facing the church this spring. March and April brought a large cluster of related scandals, all of which turned attention to the Vatican’s management of sex abuse, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s.

There was the latest phase of the long-running saga of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican priest who founded the Legion of Christ and rose to great prominence under the patronage of Pope John Paul II before he was condemned by the church in 2009 as a bigamist and abuser of seminarians. Two American cases, one involving a Wisconsin priest who abused 200 deaf boys over the course of many years from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s, and the case of an Oakland, California priest convicted of child molestation, whose request for laicization dragged through the Vatican for years.

Finally, and closest to the papal household, on March 25, the New York Times broke a story by Nicholas Kulish and Katrin Bennhold raising questions about the pope’s management of clerical misconduct while he led the Archdiocese of Munich in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The paper reported that Benedict, then known as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, was more involved in the process of deciding how to handle a case of misconduct than the Vatican had previously admitted. According to Kulish and Bennhold, Ratzinger had been “copied on a memo that informed him that a priest, whom he had approved for sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome pedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment.”

“The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish,” they reported. The Archdiocese of Munich and the Vatican responded with vigorous denials that Ratzinger had been involved in the decision-making—which, they said, was done by subordinates.

Meanwhile, one day earlier, another Times story recounted the case of a Milwaukee priest named Lawrence Murphy. Written by Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, the story argued that Vatican officials, Ratzinger included, had resisted Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s repeated requests to authorize a canonical trial to laicize Murphy. The story was partly based on church documents, including letters back and forth between Milwaukee and Rome, provided to the Times by plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Anderson.

Goodstein indicated that Murphy’s misconduct had been reported to three consecutive Milwaukee archbishops before the priest was removed from the school in 1974—and then he was simply moved to a parish assignment in rural northern Wisconsin. Weakland wrote to Ratzinger, by then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), asking for permission to try Murphy after Weakland discovered that Murphy’s offenses at the school for the deaf had included soliciting sex in the confessional.

Ratzinger did not respond for eight months, the Times reported, although his assistant Tarcisio Bertone eventually authorized a trial to defrock Murphy. Murphy then appealed the decision, noting that the allegations were 25 years old, beyond the statute of limitations in canon law, and that he was old and in bad health. Weakland told the Times that he was unable to persuade the Vatican to let the trial go forward.

A vigorous counter-attack followed from the Vatican, which charged that the Times “lacked fairness in its coverage of Pope Benedict.” Bishops all over Europe weighed in, as did American bishops, including Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who called on Catholics to “besiege” the Times in order to “send a message that the Catholic Church will no longer be its personal punching bag.” New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan took to his own blog and to his Easter pulpit to condemn the Times’ coverage.

In Rome itself, the contretemps cast a pall over Easter, with the pope’s personal preacher delivering a sermon on Good Friday comparing the media treatment of Benedict to anti-Semitism. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the head of the College of Cardinals who was considered a to-the-bitter-end partisan of Father Maciel and an opponent of vigorous investigation of misconduct by clergy generally, gave an Easter sermon at St. Peter’s Cathedral dismissing the misconduct crisis as the product of malicious gossip.

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley entered the fray on April 2, with a blog post explaining why he thought it was urgent to defend the pope. “Confusion and misinformation in the news media have obscured the pope’s effectiveness in dealing with sexual abuse of children by clergy,” he wrote.

“What’s very clear to me and I think to all who are fair-minded is that Cardinal Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict has been dedicated to eradicating sexual abuse in the church and trying to rectify the mistakes of the past. Until the sexual abuse crisis really became a part of the consciousness of the church in Europe there were many who were unsympathetic to our efforts in the US to deal with the problem in a transparent way and assure that our Catholic schools, parishes, and agencies would be safe for children. During this period of at least a decade, the strongest ally we had in this effort was Cardinal Ratzinger.”

In the eyes of O’Malley and many others, Benedict was the indispensable man.

But additional reporting in April complicated the matter further. American newspapers and the AP produced another story raising questions about the narrative of Ratzinger as hero, complete with a trail of documents including letters that he had signed in the 1980s. This was the lengthy saga of an Oakland priest named Stephen Kiesle, whose case languished for much of the decade in Ratzinger’s CDF.

In 1978, Kiesle pleaded guilty to charges of molesting two boys, ages 11 and 12, in his rectory. In 1981, Oakland bishop John Cummins passed on to Rome a request for laicization that originated with Kiesle himself. Four years later, Cummins received a letter from Ratzinger saying he needed more time and that “the good of the church” had to be considered in the final decision.

“As the scandal has deepened,” the New York Times’ Goodstein and Michael Luo reported on April 10, “the pope’s defenders have said that, well before elected pope in 2005, he grew ever more concerned about the scandal and weeding out pedophile priests. But the case of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, and the trail of documents…shows that, in this period, at least, his concern seemed much more avoiding scandal in the church.”

The Times then put up on its website 18 documents (including a letter in Latin from Ratzinger), all of which came from attorney Anderson. Included was a February 1982 letter from Cummins to Ratzinger stressing that more scandal would be created by failing to laicize Kiesle than by taking action against him.

Ratzinger eventually approved the laicization in 1987. And while the Times did not claim or prove that Ratzinger put the brakes on Kiesle’s laicization, it seemed pretty clear that Vatican handling of the matter slowed down when Ratzinger got involved. What was not clear, in April, was why Ratzinger had been involved at all, since the CDF was supposed to be involved only in laicization cases that involved abuse of the confessional.

By that point, the Times itself had come to be regarded as one of the dramatis personae, especially by conservatives who viewed the paper as pursuing a conscious vendetta against the church and Benedict. Commentator George Weigel, among others, asked repeatedly (in the magazine First Things and elsewhere) why the scandal was never placed in the context of sexual abuse in other institutions, and attacked the Times’ story with particular vigor.

Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor, weighed in on April 24, defending Goodstein and the Times: “Some readers say the Times is anti-Catholic. They wonder why it isn’t giving equal effort to sex abuse in public schools, or in other religions. And Cardinal William Levada (the current head of the CDF) and others argue that Benedict improved the Vatican’s response to such cases, streamlining the procedures for hearing them and apologizing to victims.

“But it would be irresponsible to ignore the continuing revelations,” Hoyt wrote. “Like it or not, there are circumstances that have justifiably driven this story for years, including a well-documented pattern of denial and cover-up in an institution with billions of followers. Painful as it may be, the paper has an obligation to follow the story to where it leads, even to the pope’s door.”

Out in the blogosphere, Paul Moses, a former religion reporter and journalism professor, seconded the motion. “Journalists aren’t especially interested in individual cases of sexual abuse, but are very interested in stories about cover-ups in powerful institutions,” he wrote on “To say that sexual abuse in other churches or other sectors of society does not get the same media attention misses the point. The issue isn’t that Catholic priests are allegedly prone to commit sexual abuse, but that a small percentage of them were freed to do so, again and again, due to gross mismanagement, secrecy and lack of accountability on the part of church authorities. However dated most of the sexual abuse cases are, this story still calls out to be covered because some of those who failed to stop repeat abusers remain in positions of authority.”

One of the Times’ problems in covering the latest phase of the scandal was that it is now pretty much alone in both its sense of obligation and its capacity to pursue stories on so large a scale. During the past decade, American newspapers have become shadows of their former selves.

In 2002, the Boston Globe led the way, with ardent competition from the Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and metropolitan dailies in Hartford, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Louisville, St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Diego, to name a few. Over the past few months, headed by Goodstein in New York and Rachel Donadio in Rome, perhaps a dozen Times reporters still assigned in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and around the U.S. produced substantial pieces of journalism. In manpower and level of commitment to produce more than local coverage, the Times stood alone and looked like a gunslinger.

Writing in First Things on June 1, editor Joseph Bottum—no friend of the Times or its coverage—refocused attention. Calling Benedict “something like a hero,” he faulted the church for failing to act decisively to discipline its hierarchy, to end the careers of men like Sodano. “The bishops who ruled over those corrupt priests catastrophically failed to act,” he wrote. “The Catholic church did not start the worldwide epidemic of child sexual abuse, and it did not materially advance it. But the bureaucracy of the Church did not do nearly enough to fight that epidemic when it broke out among its own clergy.”

About Benedict’s handling of the Maciel case, Bottum offered this diagnosis: “The real problem is the lack of consequences—visible consequences—for failures and missteps and wrong associations in the Vatican. The real problem is that heads haven’t rolled, penalties haven’t been exacted.”

By mid-summer, there had emerged three ways of thinking about the pope and how he had handled clergy sexual abuse during his 30 years in the Vatican. Each was advanced by at least some people and had a case to be made for it. Not one was a perfect fit for what’s known or believed.

Way One: As both cardinal and pope, Benedict has been committed to restoring the orthodoxy and high standards of the church. Because he loves the priesthood, he defends it against those who betray it from within, and so was a stalwart opponent of clergy sexual abuse from the beginning. He is the heroic figure in Rome that O’Malley, Dolan, and so many other bishops have portrayed.

Way Two: Almost alone in Rome, it dawned on Ratzinger, probably sometime in the late 1990s, that the sexual misconduct crisis was real, widespread, and a deadly threat to the church. Until that date, he was preoccupied more with his campaign to support John Paul’s crusade to remake the church in a more conservative image, and he still shared reflexive concerns about the need to protect the church from scandal and preserve the prestige of the clergy. But by 2001, he was out front and gathering the administrative power to persuade the pope to let the CDF handle the problem. And as pope, he brought the hammer down.

Way Three: As cardinal, Ratzinger could sometimes see the import of the crisis, but he was always focused on an ideological agenda for conservative reform. He was unwilling to make combating sexual misconduct his top priority, especially if that meant slowing down the pace of reform or constraining “conservative” malefactors like Maciel. Neither could he tolerate sacrificing Vatican autonomy, whether by allowing more authority to local bishops, to the laity, or to the police powers of the state. And even as pope, he was only prepared to go so far.

For its proponents, Way One has costs as well as benefits. Most obviously, by portraying Benedict as a lonely hero, zealous supporters like Weigel and Bottum have to agree that the Vatican and the hierarchy in the field are full of bad actors, from Sodano and Bertone on down, up to their elbows in cover-ups and worse. And John Paul II’s reputation has to be pretty much thrown under the bus—hence a lot of rueful talk about his refusal to modify his agenda to address clerical sexual misconduct and his “blind spot” for evil but ideologically congenial characters like Maciel.

Way Two, which focuses on Ratzinger’s growing concern about the problem in the 1990s and his “come to Jesus” moment in 2001, is shared by the largest number of Catholic activists, including some official Vatican spokesmen.

But there are interpretive problems with it. In yet another Times story, this one published on July 1, Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger track the Vatican’s complex and confused handling of the crisis during the 1990s. This, according to them, cast “a new and less flattering light” on Cardinal Ratzinger’s “reputation as the Vatican insider who most clearly recognized the threat that the spreading sexual abuse scandal posed to the Roman Catholic Church.”

Specifically, the story raised questions about whether the 2001 decision to give the CDF control of the process of laicizing offending priests followed an extraordinary (and hitherto unacknowledged) meeting in April 2000 demanded by bishops from Ireland, Australia, the United States, Canada, and the West Indies to force the Vatican to respond to their concerns. The 2001 policy was “not a sharp break with past practices. It was mainly a belated reaffirmation of longstanding church procedures.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Times reported, the world’s bishops were confused about which Vatican forums and procedures to use in seeking the laicization of priests. They were “daunted by bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal processes, with contradicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions” in Rome. “There was confusion everywhere,” Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson of Adelaide, Australia told the Times.

At the meeting, Ratzinger, in marked contrast to many of his Vatican colleagues, came down clearly on the side of policing sexual offenders. However, it also became clear at the meeting that Ratzinger and the CDF had not vigorously asserted long-existing Vatican policies that gave the CDF the right to handle cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Wilson, a canonist, had both before and at the meeting asked whether a policy statement issued in 1922 and reissued in 1962 giving the CDF jurisdiction was still in effect. Other bishops at the meeting had no idea that the policy existed. “For the two decades he was in charge of [the CDF], the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church’s credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland, and elsewhere,” Goodstein and Halbfinger wrote.

Most controversially, they bluntly asserted that “the future pope, it is now clear, was also a part of a culture of non-responsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging, and outright obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul II, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after country.”

Those tough words generated howls of outrage from Benedict’s defenders. Blogger Rod Dreher, a man who publicly left the Catholic Church because of its handling of the scandal, denounced the 4,000 word piece as a “weak hatchet job” on Benedict.

And in truth, the story doesn’t nail down a portrait of Cardinal Ratzinger as a “legalistic foot-dragger” cut from the same cloth as such Vatican hierarchs like Sodano, Bertone, or Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for the Clergy, who told the bishops gathered in 2000 that “sexual abuse is an unavoidable fact of life” and complained “that lawyers and the media were unfairly focused on it.”

However, it seems indisputable that Ratzinger preferred to focus his attention on the priorities he shared with John Paul: ending the practice of easy laicization for priests, defanging national conferences of bishops, opposing Marxist inroads on Catholic theology, and reshaping the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger did not stand up in the 1980s or 1990s to clarify the process of laicizing priests for his episcopal colleagues around the world. Rather, he let confusion prevail, dipping in occasionally rather than spending time and energy on forcing Vatican obstructionists to back down.

Further, both Ratzinger and John Paul II bear considerable responsibility for asserting a vastly expanded program of centralized control in the Vatican without improving the capacities of its administrative apparatus. Three decades into the sexual misconduct crisis, estimates of the size of the professional staff handing the cases in the CDF range from 10 to about 25 professionals. Even if the Curia’s staff is vigilant about reigning in rogue clergy (a position that few assert), that’s a tiny group to handle an inundation of complaints in very elaborate and slow moving investigative and legal processes. That is why the Belgian police were on the move.

So it appears that Way Three best fits the facts. Benedict may have the best track record among the current players, but it seems bootless to hope that he can bring himself to make heads roll in the hierarchy. Indeed, at the end of June he presided over a ritual that suggests just how deeply enmeshed in the folkways of the Vatican he really is.

Cardinal Christopher Schoenborn of Vienna, a former student who is closely aligned with the pope, had been one of Benedict’s most vigorous public cheerleaders at the end of March when the world’s bishops were rallying to defend him from charges of cover-up in Munich.

Schoenborn told Austrian television on March 30 that “to accuse him of being someone who covers things up—having known the pope for many years—I can say that that is certainly not true.” In the same statement Schoenborn recalled that in 1995, Ratzinger had come to his aid in demanding a special investigation of then-Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna, who was eventually forced from office for allegedly molesting young monks.

“I can still very clearly remember the moment when Cardinal Ratzinger sadly told me that the other camp had asserted itself,” said Schoenborn, in an implicit criticism of Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

On June 30, the Vatican released an extraordinary statement rebuking Schoenborn, who it said had been summoned to a meeting in Rome on June 28 and ordered to apologize to Sodano in the presence of the pope. ‘”It must be reiterated that, in the church, when accusations are made against a cardinal, competency falls exclusively to the pope,” the communiqué read.

That pretty much said it all.

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