A malicious storm is being stirred up over the Pope's alleged failure to deal with abusive priests, says Damian Thompson.
Published: 7:08AM GMT 19 Mar 2010
After a week of disastrous publicity for the Roman Catholic Church, it's a fair bet that if you conducted a word-association test in the average British high street, the results would be as follows:
Catholic priest? "Paedophile."
The reputation of the Church internationally has never been lower. On Wednesday, St Patrick's Day, Cardinal Sean Brady, Primate of All Ireland, apologised for helping to persuade two boys – aged 10 and 14 – to sign letters agreeing not to tell the police that a priest, Brendan Smyth, had abused them.
This was 35 years ago: Brady was just one priest involved in the internal church process, and the story has been in the public domain for years. But what difference does that make? Smyth, now dead, went on to be exposed as a notorious sexual predator. Cardinal Brady said last December that he would resign if he was implicated in decisions that led children to be abused. Now he says he'll go only if the Holy Father orders him to.
Pope Benedict XVI will have to make up his mind what to do about Cardinal Brady. But it won't be easy to find the time, because clerical child-abuse scandals – previously mainly confined to the English-speaking world – are bursting out all over Europe. And sections of the media are doing their best to implicate the Pope in one of them.
Did Joseph Ratzinger, when he was Archbishop of Munich in 1980, enable a priest already facing allegations to work in a parish and subsequently abuse boys? A headline in The Times on Saturday left readers in no doubt: "Pope knew priest was paedophile but allowed him to continue with ministry."
The story was explosive, and not just because it directly implicated the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics. The Pope is visiting England and Scotland in September. He will meet the Queen at Holyrood House, Edinburgh, and beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great English theologian, at a public Mass in Coventry. And he will offer "guidance on the great moral issues of our day", according to Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Church in Scotland.
Moral guidance? From a man who (according to The Times) knew a priest was a paedophile but allowed him to continue in ministry? If that were true, no wonder 28,000 people have signed a petition to the Prime Minister objecting to state funding of Benedict's visit.
At which point, everyone needs to take a deep breath. Because a narrative is being formed in the public imagination that is horrifying, packed with salacious detail and very neat, in that it describes a Catholic conspiracy to hush up child abuse stretching right to the very top. The problem is that it's partly fiction.
Many Catholics – and I am one of them – believe that the Pope has been stitched up over this Munich case. The then-Archbishop Ratzinger did not allow a priest he knew to be a paedophile to continue in ministry. He gave permission for the priest – a revolting pervert called Peter Hullermann, who was accused (but not convicted) of forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform a sex act on him – to receive counselling in Munich while suspended from priestly duties.
Without Archbishop Ratzinger's knowledge, Hullermann was later transferred to parish duties. By the time he was convicted of sex offences, the archbishop had become Cardinal Ratzinger and had been working in the Vatican for several years. So the Times headline was, in the words of the leading Catholic commentator Philip Lawler, "grossly misleading, downright irresponsible".
The future Pontiff could have been more vigilant, but to bracket his delegation of decisions with Cardinal Brady's complicity in a cover-up is unfair. As unfair, indeed, as branding an elderly Bavarian cleric a "former Nazi" because he was drafted into the Hitler youth and served briefly in the German army during the war.
The fact is that sections of the media will not be happy until they have implicated the Pope in sex-abuse scandals – and if the dots don't quite join up, never mind: it makes good copy and the Successor of Peter isn't going to sue, is he? One Guardian columnist welcomed the news of the Pope's visit with the claim that he had "colluded" in the deaths of millions of Africans. "Don't tread on the corpses," she sneered.
Mgr Georg Ratzinger, the Pope's ancient older brother, has also been dragged into the spotlight. As head of the Regensburg choir school, he was innocent of any abuse that took place there before his time. But he admitted slapping the occasional wayward choirboy, so naturally he has been thrown to the wolves.
Yet there are also Catholics – and, again, I'm one of them – who are furious that a culture of secrecy has enabled a small minority of clergy to assault children: generations of children, in some cases, their crimes consistently hushed up by lazy slugs in diocesan offices who would rather expose young people to assault than damage "the good name of the Church".
As a journalist working in the Catholic media, I've encountered again and again a level of deceit reminiscent of the flunkeys of
a tinpot dictator. Charles Chaput, the current Archbishop of Denver, a lonely campaigner against episcopal back-slapping, has condemned the "clericalism, excessive secrecy, 'happy talk' and spin control" that enabled the establishment to move abusers around parishes like pieces on a Monopoly board.
Russell Shaw, the former director of communications for America's Catholic bishops, has written about the "stifling, deadening misuse of secrecy that does immense harm to the Church". But Shaw also raises the unfashionable topic of "legitimate secrecy of the kind required to protect confidential records and people's reputations".
Let me give an example. A priest I know slightly was accused of a sexual crime that he didn't commit. He was removed from his parish so quietly that his parishioners didn't know what was going on. He returned, months later, equally surreptitiously, having been cleared by police. Some of his flock resented the "secrecy". Yet it saved the career and reputation of an innocent man.
When he was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger defended and enforced this legitimate secrecy. In 2001, he demanded to be sent bishops' files on accused clergy, because he did not believe the cases were being handled with sufficient rigour. He cited a 1962 document which stressed the need for confidentiality. But – and this point is crucial – Ratzinger used his new jurisdiction to act far more harshly against sex abusers than had their useless local bishops. From that point forward, writes John Allen, an American Catholic journalist, "he and his staff seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess".
What are non-Catholics to make of all this? I'd argue that, like Catholics, they need to resist sweeping conclusions and try to reconcile two truths. The first is that many Catholic bishops, especially in Ireland and America, betrayed children, families and their own good priests by covering up for abusers. The crimes may have reached their peak as long ago as the 1970s, but the culture that enveloped them has yet to be fully dismantled.
The second is that secularists who despise Catholicism are manipulating tragedies to marginalise Catholics and blacken the name of a Pope, Benedict XVI, who has done far more than his predecessor to root out what he calls the "filth" of sexual abuse. Unfortunately for the Pope, his enemies inside the Church, who include members of the College of Cardinals, are happy for him to take the rap. Ratzinger was never "one of the boys", the "magic circle" of bishops who covered for each other, and now he is paying for it. Expect some judicious leaking of scandals to sympathetic journalists just in time for his visit.
Ultimately, only the Pope himself can resolve the tension between guilt and innocence, and he needs to act fast. The "Rottweiler" nickname was always misleading, given his personal gentleness, but it would be no bad thing if he launched a ferocious attack on sexual predators and their hand-wringing accomplices in the higher ranks of the clergy
Source: Damian Thompson, The Telegraph.