In the past few weeks, the issue of Catholic priests abusing children has again become a prominent story in the media. The new wrinkle is that the Pope is implicated in several ways. He has been accused of knowingly allowing an abusive priest in his Archdiocese to minister, of hindering the removal of abusive priests and telling bishops to keep this information secret from the police so the priests would not be tried in civil courts.
Because of these accusations, some Catholics (and others) are calling for the Pope to resign. Other Catholics are accusing the media of leading a persecution of the Church because they believe the media hates the Church. People on both sides of the issue are quite worked up. People are angry with the Church. People are angry with the media.
I have had a number of friends ask me my opinion on these matters. I have followed the abuse issue since the late 80's. Since 2002, I have been a member of an organization that has tried to help victims of abuse by priests and religious. I receive a daily email with headlines from around the world carrying stories about abuse.
I have been working on a talk entitled "Lessons From the Abuse Crisis" for a while. It is an area I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about. The talk will cover many more topics, but in this email, I want to address 3 questions that relate to the current flurry of publicity.
IS THE MEDIA OUT TO GET THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
WHY SHOULD THE POPE RESIGN?
WHY SHOULD THE POPE NOT RESIGN?
First of all, I want to talk about the role of the media. When the Boston Globe broke the story of clerical abuse in Massachusetts in 2002, it set off a firestorm of publicity all across the country. Newspapers all over the country began to wonder if there were similar cases in their local diocese. Reporters were assigned to find out. Court records and diocesan personnel files were requested and examined. What began in Boston became an avalanche of horrible publicity in every state of the country.
Many bishops resisted these requests, even court ordered requests. There was a culture of secrecy within the Church. But as the documents slowly came out, they revealed that the problem was much more widespread than previously thought. Not only were there more abusive priests than we imagined, we discovered that bishops had lied to parishioners, families, victims, and even to civil authorities. Bishops had moved offending priests from parish to parish where they abused new children.
The media DID NOT create this problem. This problem was a cancer eating away at the moral heart of the Church. The Church should thank the media and the legal system for exposing this disease. The Church had shown that it does not have the courage to do what is right unless it is prodded by the shame of having its failures exposed in the media. One Archbishop called the Boston Globe's coverage (for which it won a Pulitzer Prize) a 'work of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit had wanted to expose the truth so that genuine reform could begin and healing and justice for victims could be realized.
Are the motives of the media always pure? Of course not. But the motives of the bishops and priests were not always pure either. Can the pot call the kettle black? The factual errors in the recent New York Times articles (and the subsequent quoting by other mainstream media) could be the result of an anti-Catholic bias. They are at least the result of poor research.
The local organization I work with has developed a good relationship with the local media. Their reporting has generally been accurate and fair. One might wish they presented a more balanced picture, but that is true about many articles having to do with politics, ethical issues, celebrities, scandals of many sorts and even sports. Reporters have a limited amount of time to research and write and who they have had a chance to talk to as well as their own bias is going to influence how they approach a story. But I don't think there is a wide-spread conspiracy to persecute the Church.
Again, the Church should be thanking the media for the help they have been to the Church to deal with this cancer.
WHY SHOULD THE POPE RESIGN?
When the U.S. bishops gathered in Dallas in 2002 to draft the Charter for Protection of Children, they developed a policy that required that any priest found guilty of abuse would be removed from active ministry, even if it happened 25 years ago. This was a very positive step because most child abusers continue to abuse if given the opportunity. So immediately removing them protected many other children who would have been abused in recent years. All accusations of abuse were also to be turned over to the police for independent investigations. So priests became accountable for their actions.
But what the bishops DID NOT DO was hold themselves accountable for their mis-deeds. Some had lied, some had been blackmailed by abusive priests, and many had knowingly moved abusive priests to new parishes without informing the new parish about the priest's history. But the Charter did not address any of these issues. No bishop in the U.S. has voluntarily resigned primarily because he did these wrong actions. There was no accountability for the bishops.
By way of contrast, 4 bishops in Ireland have resigned over the abuse crisis after the Murphy report came out there last year. What was the difference? Archbishop Martin. The Dublin Archbishop went public with a demand that these bishops resign who had been identified in the Murphy report as having moved abusive priests. He pressured these bishops to resign via personal conversations, via the media and via the Pope. The reputation of the Church in Ireland is at an all time low but these resignations are the first of many healthy steps that are being taken to rebuild the moral integrity of the Church.
There has been no U.S. bishop willing to stand up in public and say that for the good of the Church, bishop X and Archbishop Y should resign. Who has the authority to make this happen? In the absence of the moral authority of an American Archbishop Martin, only the Pope has that authority. For whatever reason, he has chosen not to exercise it. I think he can be faulted for this. I believe it would help the U.S. Church regain some moral credibility, if the world saw that Church was cleaning up its act at the highest level.
Of the various claims against the pope, his failure to hold the U.S. bishops accountable, is the strongest reason I've seen for why he should resign.
WHY SHOULD THE POPE NOT RESIGN?
In 2001, then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), issued a decree that all cases of clerical sexual abuse needed to be forwarded to his office for decisions on how to handle the offending priests. This move has been portrayed in the media as a way of covering up the misdeeds of the clergy. However, the exact opposite is true. Up until then, there was no consistent way of dealing with abuse. This action by Cardinal Ratzinger was a statement that finally someone was going to take responsibility for handling all these cases. He is reported to have personally read through 3,000 files from around the world. This process apparently changed him. He began to speak about the issue differently, with more forceful words, with more compassion for victims. He now knows more about this issue than any other bishop in the world. He has met with victims of abuse, the first pope to do so. When he visited the U.S. in 2008, bishops in Rome and in the U.S. cautioned him about speaking out about abuse because it was such a sensitive subject due to all the lawsuits going on, plus it would contribute to the further ruin of the Church's reputation. The pope ignored this advice and spoke powerfully about the horror of abuse on several occasions. He believed that telling the truth was long overdue. After hearing his words (in the media), hundreds of new victims called into various abuse hot lines around the country, ready to deal with their abuse for the first time. Pope Benedict's very public statements gave them the hope that someone would believe them.
Cardinal Ratzinger also began working through the cases. In 60% of the cases, the local bishop was authorized to deal with the offending priest. In 20% of the cases, usually more complex ones, canonical trials were begun to permanently remove the priest from the priesthood. The other 20% were handled in other ways.
Some years ago, I owned stock in a company that was involved in a huge lawsuit. It took almost 20 years for the lawsuit to be fully resolved. Appeal after appeal dragged the process out. It was very frustrating to have to wait so long to see if justice would prevail.
Church trials are the same. There are precise rules on how trials are handled. Accused priests have the right to lawyers, usually canon lawyers. These lawyers can file appeals. All of this can make a case take several years, even seven or eight years to get resolved. The Pope has been accused of protecting abusive priests by not having the trials get resolved quickly. But he has to abide by the laws of the Church and the right to a fair trial and the right to appeal the verdict makes for a slow process. What often gets overlooked when these accusations are made are two key points. First, even if the trial is dragging on, the local bishop has almost always removed the priest from ministry so that he is not in an official position to abuse more children. Secondly, if the priest is removed from the priesthood, the Church loses its ability to monitor the behavior of the priest. He is no longer under the supervision of the Church. So it is not clear to me that defrocking a priest (the act of removing him from the priesthood) is the best solution. Removing him to a monastery or other such place where his movements will be curtailed or supervised seems a much safer solution.
Some of the accusations recently leveled against Pope Benedict are simply false. The trial of Fr. Murphy in Wisconsin, who abused 200+ deaf children, was never halted by the Pope, according to the priest in charge of the trial. Fr. Murphy died while the trial was still ongoing. Archbishop Weakland had sent a letter to the Vatican indicating he had asked that the trial be halted, but Fr. Murphy died 2 days after the letter was sent. In one recently publicized case of a priest in Arizona, the Pope was accused of delaying the trial, but the priest's lawyer kept filing appeals that took 7 years to resolve. Maybe the process should be sped up, as long as due process is not violated. Maybe more people need to be assigned to assist in the processing of these cases. But to accuse the Pope of deliberately trying to thwart justice and save the Church's reputation is not borne out by the facts.
The situation of the priest who came to his Archdiocese for treatment in Germany while the Pope was still Archbishop there is still not clear. From the timeline, it appears that this priest was allowed to return to public ministry and then abused more kids. But this assignment apparently happened AFTER Cardinal Ratzinger had moved onto Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Should he have done more to ensure that the priest was not returned to ministry? Possibly. All the facts have not come out yet, so I don't want to speculate one way or the other. But with what we know so far, it does not appear that he was guilty of assigning the priest to ministry.
It may be that there will be other revelations that will come out that will be actually damaging to the Pope. I don't know.
But one major concern I have is that it seems like Pope Benedict is one of the few Cardinals who 'get it' with regard to the abuse issue. If he steps down, I fear that someone will become pope who will not want to deal with the issue as forcefully as Pope Benedict has done. Pope Benedict moved quickly once he became pope to remove several high profile priests who were friends of Pope John Paul II, but had been abusive. Pope John Paul II could not believe the accusations but Pope Benedict did and took immediate action. I think right now he is the best hope we have to deal with this issue. He is advocating the extension of the U.S. norms to the rest of the Catholic world.
So the facts do not support many of the recent accusations against Pope Benedict. Which is not to say he is faultless. Even with the recent reporting errors, we, Catholics, owe the media a debt of gratitude.
In conclusion, this is a horrible thing to have to discuss. Many victims of abuse carry the effects of their abuse for the rest of their lives. They need healing, reconciliation with God and the Church, and justice. In all the discussions about the pope, the bishops, the priests, the Charter, etc. we must NEVER forget the victims. They will be with us for many years to come.
In my talk on the abuse issue, I will be addressing additional topics such as:
AREN'T VICTIMS JUST AFTER THE CHURCH'S MONEY?
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE FALSE CLAIMS OF ABUSE?
WHEN DID THIS FIRST START?
IS THE ABUSE ISSUE RELATED TO THE BREAKDOWN OF MORALITY AFTER VATICAN 2?
WHY ARE SO MANY OF THE ABUSERS HOMOSEXUALS?
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CAUSES OF ABUSE?
WHY DID THE CHURCH COVER THIS UP FOR SO LONG?
WHAT ABOUT NUNS WHO SEXUALLY ABUSE CHILDREN?
HOW SHOULD I THINK ABOUT THE GOOD THINGS ABUSIVE PRIESTS DID?
WHO AM I TO JUDGE OTHERS?
ARE THINGS CHANGING FOR THE BETTER OR IS IT ALL A SMOKE SCREEN?
This talk should be available in the next few months on CD.
Let me know if you are interested in purchasing one ($5) when it is available.
If you have questions or comments, I am very open to receiving your feedback.