The NYT’s non-hatchet job on the Pope

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Notwithstanding Michael Sean Winters at NCR, R.R. Reno at First Thoughts, Rod Dreher at Beliefnet, and Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at GetReligion, the 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.

Let’s begin by stipulating that with the scandals having come home to roost in Rome, it is essential journalistic business to get the best possible fix on the record of Pope Benedict, going back to the days when as Joseph Ratzinger he was archbishop of Munich and, especially, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Here’s what the current archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, Philip Edward Wilson, had to say to Goodstein and Halbfinger about how the Vatican dealt with sexual abuse issues on Ratzinger’s watch: “There was confusion everywhere.”

The core question raised by the article is posed by Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop from Sydney:

“Why did the Vatican end up so far behind the bishops out on the front
line, who with all their faults, did change — they did develop,” he
said. “Why was the Vatican so many years behind?”

The answer, according to the Times:

Supporters say that Cardinal Ratzinger would have preferred to take
steps earlier to stanch the damage in certain cases.

But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of
nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright
obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it
was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the
1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after
country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume
his own papacy.

Do the critics claim otherwise? No they don’t. The most they can manage is to suggest that Ratzinger was faced with a difficult situation, that he was the best of a bad lot, and that given John Paul II’s resistance, he did the best he could. Maybe so, but the most detailed example of his handling of a case we have–that of the child-abusing Oakland priest Stephen Kiesle–indicates otherwise. That’s my assessment based on a close reading of documents from the case file. The Times article does not discuss, but does allude to, Ratzinger’s performance in the Kiesle case. The evidence is that the case was moving along with all deliberate speed until Ratzinger took charge of the CDF. Then it slowed to a crawl.

Much of the confusion over the handling of sexual abuse cases in the
Vatican during the 1980s and 1990s resulted from uncertainty throughout
the hierarchy over which office had responsibility, what the extent of
that responsibility was, and what to do about the 5-year statute of
limitations enunciated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. 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 CDF all along had responsibility
for all sexual abuse cases and that there was no statute of

Were Ratzinger and his staff aware of this? And if
they were, why didn’t they so inform the bishops, some of whom were
desperately looking to the Vatican to take charge of the situation, and
to extend what they thought was a woefully short statute of limitations?
Over on dotCommonweal, canon lawyer Nicholas P. Cafardi (emeritus dean
of the Duquesne Law School) expands on what he told the Times,
kicking off a fascinating discussion of
how best to understand the failure of the CDF to take the situation in
hand. Cafardi is prepared to cut Ratzinger some slack in this regard. As
a theologian rather than a canon lawyer, the cardinal was dependent on
others to tell him what was what. Archbishop Wilson told the Times that
he had raised the issue of the 1922 document with the CDF in late
1990s. Did the staff he talked to keep their boss in the dark until
Wilson brought up the matter at a hitherto unreported meeting of bishops
from English-speaking countries in 2000? 

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

Would it have made a difference if the CDF had gotten its act together,
as Goodstein and Halbfinger allege? The answer is yes. Sure, much of the
actual abuse uncovered over the past couple of decades had already
taken place by the time Ratzinger took over the CDF. But much of the
covering up by bishops had not. Had the Vatican clearly and publicly
issued the norms that were already in place, and enunciated new
ones mandating open dealing and a reporting of charges to the civil
authorities, and been willing to discipline bishops who did the covering
up, the crisis of the past decade would have been substantially

Thanks in no small measure to the investigative
efforts of the Times in recent months, a portrait is emerging of
Pope Benedict as someone who (in contrast to others in the Vatican)
grasped the seriousness of child sexual abuse and was prepared to bring
the hammer down on abusers, up to and including the monstrous Marcial
Maciel Degollado. But from his days running the CDF to his papacy, he
has not been willing to challenge the curial system and its determined
commitment to circling the wagons. Indeed, when push comes to shove, and
he perceives that it is threatened, his reaction is to jump into the
arms of the likes of Cardinal Sodano, who epitomizes all that is wrong
with that system. 

  • The 1922 document only refers to abuse of minors (impuberes, which means girls under 12 and boys under 14) in one word in the last of its more than 70 paragraphs. It also refers to same-sex relations in the previous 2 paragraphs as THE WORST CRIME. These crimes are supposed to be treated the same way as solicitation in the confessional, which is the theme of the body of the document. In reality these last three paragraphs have a “tacked on” feel and were never accepted as having legal teeth. Those who make so much of them now could accuse the CDF of neglecting its business by not prosecuting gay priests down through the last century. So the NYT article is based on a misprision.