Monday, April 05, 2010

Pope Benedict: Better than his critics

The people who are always running down the Catholic Church and talking about the Inquisition have now erected a stake and are gathering kindling in order to set the Pope afire.

At least during the Inquisition, they had, like, trials and evidence and stuff. But Benedict's detractors have given the Pope only a quick trial in a court no respectable kangaroo would set foot in. Their evidence against him consists mostly of a New York Times hit piece that distorts and exaggerates the Pope's actual involvement in what is admittedly a sorry affair.

This mob of torch-bearing atheists, fresh from the village, is battening on the doors of the Vatican and charging that the Pope was "personally involved in a case involving a Wisconsin priest who raped 200 deaf kids -- and that he made sure the priest was not defrocked," to quote one pitchfork wielding atheist, Ed Brayton, who is apparently under the impression that the Pope personally visited Wisconsin to make sure that pedophile priests had a plenteous supply of young boys to molest.

Brayton is either ignorant or he's lying. Or he could just be an idiot, a theory to which the title of his recent post on the matter lends some credence: "Wisconsin priest molests 200 deaf boys; Pope defends him." But he can get out of the nasty little dilemma he's put himself in by producing the evidence that Ratzinger "personally involved in the case" and that he "made sure the priest was not defrocked." It's not in the documentation of the case, so where is it?

Brayton cites a New York Times article by Laurie Goodstein to the effect (Brayton's words, not Goodstein's) that "American bishops prevailed on the Pope, when he was still Joseph Ratzinger, to do something about it and he refused." In fact, Brayton seems completely confused on what actually happened. Of course the Times story, which was misleading at best, didn't help the situation.

Here is what Goodstein said:
This week, they [Murphy's victims] learned that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, received letters about Father Murphy in 1996 from Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, who said that the deaf community needed “a healing response from the Church.” The Vatican sat on the case, then equivocated, and when Father Murphy died in 1998, he died a priest.
Smelling the smoke from over in the Times newsroom, Maureen Dowd got in on the action as well:
Now we learn the sickening news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” when he was the church’s enforcer on matters of faith and sin, ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.
What Goodstein and Dowd and Brayton and the Associated Press, which also contributed to the rhetorical bonfire (not to mention the increasingly moralistic Richard Dawkins), doesn't tell readers is that it was Weakland, who reportedly archdiocese funds to pay for his homosexual lover and who Goodstein treated with kid gloves in an earlier story, sat on the case for 22 years before even informing the Vatican about it.

Oh wait. Did I say that? That the person who was the chief impediment to prosecuting Murphy was a homosexual priest? And did I say that Murphy was himself a homosexual? That his victims were primarily post-pubescent teenage boys and that he gave one person a list of gay bars in different cities? And did I mention that 81 percent of all the victims of priest sexual abuse cases are boys?

I did? I am so sorry. I take it all back. Shame on me for mentioning it. What was I thinking?

Anyway, back to Weakland ... when he did finally send a letter to the Doctrine of the Congregation of Faith, the arm of the Vatican overseen by Ratzinger in 1996, it was for advice only, since the Congregation did not become responsible for such cases until 2001. There is literally no evidence that Ratzinger even saw the letter, since his deputy, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, was the one who responded to Weakland.

The worst thing you can say about the incident from the perspective of the Vatican, is that they didn't send a letter back for 9 months. A slightly less than efficient bureaucracy. Imagine that. And when Bertone did respond, it was to suggest that the archdiocese use pastoral measures to resolve the situation rather than penal procedures. That was only a suggestion on limited information and was probably made because that was the fastest way, given the longer trial process, of taking away his ministry so he wouldn't be a danger to anyone.

In fact, neither Ratzinger nor the Vatican hindered the judicial process on Murphy, but the process was never slowed down at all. "The documents," Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, show that the canonical trial or penal process against Father Murphy was never stopped by anyone."

The Pope's detractors got off on a bad foot when they took the information uncritically from attorneys suing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who have several pending cases against the Catholic Church in the U. S. Supreme Court--and from Milwaukee Archbishop Weakland who had control of the case from 1974 to 1996--a period of time in which, other than move the priest away from the vicinity of boys, he did precisely nothing.

Too bad the anti-Catholic media show trials don't allow cross examination of witnesses.

Then it went from bad to worse. The quotes Goodstein attributed to the judge in the case, Fr. Thomas Brundage, were someone else's account of what the judge said:
I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee ... The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them ... I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.
The facts are not facts and the quotes are not quotes. But the Times has had its problems with journalistic integrity in the past, now hasn't it? When I was a journalist, I got my quotes from the actual person who was supposed to have said them, not from someone else's notes. Sheeez.

I went to the trouble of reading the documents myself: de Souza and Brundagre are right. There is no evidence Ratzinger ever saw any of the correspondence on the case. In fact, not only did Ratzinger not hinder sex abuse cases, but, according to Brundage (who was in a lot better position to know about the situation than any of the Pope's detractors), when Ratzinger became responsible for these cases, he handled them quite well:
... the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001. Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of then Cardinal Ratzinger.
The handling of the Murphy case was completely bungled--while Archbishop Weakland had responsibility over it. It was only in 1996 when others got involved--Brundage and the Vatican--that it began to be handled properly.

In fact, Brundage is profuse in his praise for Ratzinger involvement in these issues:
Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.
The Pope did none of the things his detractors said he did--and had already done what his detractors demanded he do before they even asked it: namely, apologize for the Church's past handling of the problem--despite the fact that he was not personally involved. And despite the fact that he has done more to deal with the problem than any of his predecessors--and more about it than any of his critics.

The Murphy case is a terrible tragedy. Weakland should be run out of town for sitting on it for 22 years. But the people who are out trying to ignite a fire under Benedict for it ought to get a life.


Thomas M. Cothran said...

One of the more compelling criticisms of the way the Catholic church has handled the cases is that they haven't reported the cases to the police. However, what's often overlooked is that many of these cases aren't reported until the statute of limitations are up, or those who report it don't want the publicity of a criminal trial.

Other than isolated cases of corrupt bishops (like the one in this case), the problem was that many American bishops were consulting psychologists, who were reporting some of these priests "cured". Considering also the fact that the rise in abuse cases corresponded with the sexual revolution of the 60's and 70's, the problem seems to be that some areas of the American Catholic church were too liberal and not Catholic enough. That's a harsh indictment from the Catholic perspective, but it's hardly the criticism that Brayton and other liberal critics want to make.

As bad as the evils that the scandal has brought to light are, it's worth mentioning that Catholic priests are much less likely to have sexual contact with a minor than a school-teacher, or males generally. You'd think if what the New York Times was really appalled about was child abuse, they'd be running exposes on the school systems.

Martin Cothran said...


Good points. Of course another problem is that the cases don't get reported for many years after when the civil statute of limitations has run out. In the Milwaukee case, the ecclesiastical statute of limitations had also run out. The only reason they were still able to prosecute was because the priest had solicited boys in the confessional (talk about sickening), and the statute of limitations was longer.

I am also told (though I can't document it) that the civil authorities elected not to prosecute in the Murphy case.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

I'd like to see a good rundown of when these cases were reported and how many were outside the statute of limitations (which many of the cases are), and especially how many were in fact reported to civil authorities (I know that has happened in at least some of the cases).

None of this excuses those bishops who were irresponsible (or downright evil), but the idea that this was a big cover up seems contrary to the facts to me. Most of the data on abuse has been put out by the college of bishops. And from what I understand, Benedict's decision to route the abuse cases through the his department was to deal with the cases more strictly and systematically.

An interesting way to approach the problem might be: whose view of sexuality is more opposed in principle to child abuse, the liberal-permissive view or the Catholic view?

Or another way: whose view of sexuality tends to lead more towards child abuse?

On the one hand, we have an institution that upholds chastity as the highest ideal, that holds that sexuality ought to be teleologically subordinated to things other than personal pleasure, that it in fact ought to function selflessly, and so on.

On the other, we have a movement that wants to break sexuality free from the traditional institutions which serve to moderate it, a view that people ought generally to do what is satisfying for them (even if this entails infidelity and broken homes).

I have to wonder if the popular attempt to brand pedophilia by the press as a Catholic problem is an attempt to convince oneself and others that the more noxious fruits of the sexual revolution are not the responsibility of the liberal movement, but instead are the responsibility of religious people.

Francis Beckwith said...

Nice work, Martin.

One of the other problems is that many of these bishops relied on "experts" in psychiatry and psychology on how to deal with these wicked men. Too many churchmen, therefore, took a matter of sin and medicalized it. This is the modern way of doing things, the sort of posture that Dawkins, Brayton, and others suggest we emulate in every aspect of our lives. So it is doubly ironic that these same folks are now suggesting that the Church should have been more medieval in the way they treated sinners. And for once, I agree with them.

Lee said...

Nice posts, all, particularly Thomas' insights on the blame game. See Conquest's First Law of Politics.

SPWeston said...


I do hope you'll share this post with parents in the institutions where you work with students.

For example, though you and I both pray it will never happen, someone working in one of those organizations may someday be accused of having raped a child.

In that case, the parents will certainly want to know that you'll be ready to defend lengthy delays in investigating and resolving the charges.

Martin Cothran said...


Where was I defending lengthy delays? I was arguing 1)That Ratzinger wasn't responsible for them, and 2)that Archbishop Weakland was.

Neither one of those argument is a defense of the lengthy delays.

Martin Cothran said...


I'm also trying to more fully understand the position of someone fully ensconced in the public education establishment criticizing the Church's handling of such cases.

Maybe you could help me there.

SPWeston said...


Have you seen me defending anyone who pauses for ten seconds before handling such a case?

Or defending the boss of anyone who pauses for ten seconds?

SPWeston said...

Notice the report on the case where the priest plead guilty to molestation and the Cardinal wanted a careful study about whether to let him stay a priest?

Thomas M. Cothran said...

He must be one of those savages that believes in due process. Why do we even have trials for accused pedophiles at all? Why can't we just convict someone based on something we read on the internet?

SPWeston said...


A guilty plea in open court IS due process. The Oakland priest admitted he did to molesting children. The bishop asked to have him removed from the priesthood in 1981. The cardinal didn't answer the petition until 1985, and then he said more time should be taken with the decision.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

I'm unclear what you're getting at. The Pope was not dealing with an abuse trial. Disciplinary action was handled by the local bishop, not by the Vatican (though there is a centralized process for that now, which you can thank Benedict for). There was no coverup.

The question sent to the Vatican was not whether the priest can continue to serve as a priest or whether he should be around children. That's handled by the bishop. The question for the Vatican was whether the priest should be let out of his vows to things like celibacy.

Any suggestion that defrocking is necessarily a punishment is based in ignorance. The process is more commonly asked for by priests who no longer wish to fulfill their vows. One common reason is that they wish to get married. Here, it was the priest himself requesting that he be defrocked. It seems that some of the delay was due to the priests request to be released from his vow of chastity, which is normally not granted.

Further, the two year span it took to release him from his vows resulted from the fact that the process was made slow by John Paul II because there was a problem with priests abandoning their duties too freely.

Much of the criticism directed at the Vatican comes out of anti-Catholicism, bolstered with an ignorance of the facts and the issues involved. The attitude is: we don't really know what defrocking means, but we're sure we don't like what the Pope did.

SPWeston said...


I don't know where you got the two years from.

I'm talking about this case: In that case, there was a six year gap from request to action, and during that period, the self-admitted molester was able to present himself as a priest when volunteering to "help" with a youth ministry. In between, a cardinal made it quite clear that he saw virtue in maintaining the pedophile's ordination.

I do see that Catholicism may have room for the notion that someone can be fit to administer sacraments while unfit for pastoral responsibility. My Protestantism has no room for such an idea,and and I think my tradition is right on that point.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

You seem to think that Ratzinger was in charge of a disciplinary hearing for Mr. Kiesle. He wasn't (he didn't have the power to at the time, unless the priest abused the sacrament of confession); that was left up to his bishop. Nor was Kiesle practicing as a priest. Nor did the local bishop lack the power to remove Kiesle from the ministry (from what I can tell, the bishop did). Saying that Kiesle "stayed a priest" looks to me to be flatly deceptive.

The only reason a bishop would need to appeal to Rome would be to get a special dispensation to lift the requirement of celibacy. Of course, it doesn't do much for you to complain that the current Pope dragged his feet in letting an accused child molester out of his vow not to have sex. That's why it's better to rest on misleading statements that obfuscate what the process of laicization is, who has the power to do it, and how it was done in this case.

Incidentally, I was not aware that Protestants bought into the something that looks a lot like the Donatist heresy. Gives me a good reason to become Catholic, I suppose.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

I misspoke: it was the priest himself who was appealing to Rome; the local bishop was supporting his request. That doesn't really help with the misinformation campaign either.