Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Getting the facts right about the pope

(This is more or less what I plan to put in the church bulletin this coming weekend. I may change it based on feedback I receive, here or elsewhere)

No doubt you’ve read stories criticizing Pope Benedict, saying he was negligent or blocked action regarding abusive priests.

Of course this is delicate, because too many people suffered terribly at the hands of a few priests who did horrible things. Too many, especially bishops, were passive, or protected the offenders. These are valid criticisms of the Church. Still there is a question of fairness. No one wants to lump the innocent with the guilty.

So are these claims about the pope “fair and balanced”?

The Vatican is fairly faulted for being slow-moving, including in responding to the media frenzy. However, many are expecting the Vatican to do what local bishops are supposed to do, such as removing an offending priest from active ministry.

This whole mess exploded in this country around 2002, and we’ve taken steps to deal with it. Now much of the world is catching up. Europe is going through what we went through in 2002. And so in the media, it all comes back up as if it’s new.

It may yet be the case that Pope Benedict deserves criticism, what I’ve learned so far leads me more to fault the media for being sloppy and looking for the big “score.” For example, the New York Times relied on an online translation program to convert a document from Latin* to English, without having anyone check it for accuracy!

One story accused Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), as Archbishop of Munich, of putting an abusive priest back into service. It is true the priest was returned to service; but it was not Ratzinger’s decision. While in the U.S., a bishop would make that call, in Europe another official, the vicar general, makes that decision. That was all too common in the 1980s, but it doesn’t happen now, thankfully.

You heard about a case from Milwaukee, where a priest was facing a church trial to be “laicized”; and you heard about something similar from California. The claim is made that then-Cardinal Ratzinger slowed things down.

To unravel this, I have to clarify some terms many use interchangeably.

1. We refer to a cleric being “removed from ministry.” The local bishop does this—not the pope; and he can do it immediately. It can be temporary, while something is investigated, or it can be permanent. Not taking this step is probably the single-biggest harm many bishops caused in this whole mess.

2. We also refer to “laicizing” a priest. Remember, we believe that the sacrament of holy orders imparts an indelible change—“once a priest, always a priest.” But “laicizing” means he no longer has the obligations of a priest and can no longer function as a priest.

3. Often, a priest himself will ask to be “laicized” for various reasons; he feels he can no longer carry out his ministry, he wishes to marry, has had a crisis of faith, etc. The pope is not obliged to grant the request, and usually does not.

4. Then, there are cases of “involuntary” laicization, what the media calls “defrocking.” When a priest has committed grave offenses, his bishop will seek this action. The priest has the right to contest it, so there is a long process, in a “church court,” just like a secular court of law. Rome has the final say.

The problem is, the media are mixing all these together. Many have faulted Rome for taking time on laicization, failing to note that this doesn’t prevent a bishop from removing a priest from all active ministry. They are independent.

Yes, it is true that laicization takes time, and many of the stories highlight how long it took in the ’80s and ’90s. What they don’t tell you is that it has been streamlined since 2001. And who spearheaded this change? Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

An AP story really muffs this. A California priest wrote to Rome asking for voluntary dismissal. Ratzinger wrote back, saying slow down “for the good of the church.” Turns out, the same priest was also an abuser (which he obviously didn’t say in his own letter to Ratzinger); and in time, the bishop sought to have him laicized. But the AP doesn’t make clear just what request the letter they’ve quoted was responding to.

A New York Times story about a priest from Milwaukee claimed Ratzinger stopped a church trial of a dying priest. But the judge in the case—who said the Times never even talked to him—tells a different story: yes, Ratzinger was asked to stop the trial, because the priest was ill. But before Ratzinger even responded, the priest died.

Now, it may yet be that we’ll learn something deserving criticism. But the whole story should be told. If you go online to http://www.vatican.va/resources/index_en.htm, you can read about how Rome deals with these things. You can also read the tough letter Pope Benedict addressed to the Irish Church, in light of terrible events there.

Also, a lot of people see this through the lens of some mistaken assumptions.

Many assume the Vatican is a massive bureaucracy. Not so. Many assume the pope can do whatever he wants, such as firing a bishop. In theory, yes; but in practice, no. Many claim that if only the priesthood were open to women, or priests were married, this would all be different; yet we know these crimes happen in other religious settings, in schools, sports teams and elsewhere, where celibacy and Catholic theology have nothing to do with it.

I thought these were points you would like to consider as you read these things. My conclusion is the pope, and our Church, are being treated unfairly—Father Martin.

* Correction: it was a translation from Italian to English. See link in comments.

Update, April 19, AD 2010: This article in the UK Catholic Herald is very good. Biretta-tip to Rich Leonardi at Ten Reasons

22 comments:

Carmela James said...

This is really, really helpful, Father! Thank you!

J.T. said...

Out of curiosity, how are the people in your parishes reacting to this latest resurgence of the abuse scandal? Outside those directly affected, is all this making any impact on the faithful? Or have they been bludgeoned enough to let it roll off their backs? I'm curious, because I just have not seen this develop as "water cooler talk," as we old media guys would refer to it, as in "does the story play well at the water cooler?"

I think your bulletin piece is very good. I hadn't heard the story about the Times using an on-line translation service, what's the source on that? Given all the budget cuts in news organizations, it wouldn't surprise me. In the old days, they probably would have had someone on staff who could translate.

Fr Martin Fox said...

J.T.:

Father John Zuhlsdorf posted an item about the bad translation, citing an Italian publication's story.

Fr Martin Fox said...

J.T.

I haven't had any parishioners bring it up. I don't know what that means.

Pat said...

Ratzinger is 100% at fault in (at least) the Munich case. He was in charge. Period. He either knew or he should have known that an abusive priest was merely being reassigned. It says a lot that Ratzinger actually slapped a US journalist for asking him about that child rapist, Fr. Maciel. Ratzinger has NO credibility on this whole issue.

Pat said...

In addition, Ratzinger personally knew that an ordained priest - Fr. Kiesle - had tied up and raped several children. What did he do about it? Nothing. He doesn't deserve people running to his defense. He should man-up and admit fault. But I guess if you're teh kind of person who would slap a man in public for challenging you, that's unlikely to happen. We've had bad popes before. It is not wrong to point to this one's flaws and call them out.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Pat:

I'm unfamiliar with the facts you are asserting. Can you post sources please?

Pat said...

1. Munich

The NYT has recently reported that Ratzinger as archbishop in Munich at the time, was copied on a memo that informed him that Fr. Hullermann, a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome pedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. Hullermann was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish. The memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.

Moreover, Hullerman's psychiatrist in Munich, Dr. Werner Huth, said in a telephone interview from Munich that he issued written and oral warnings about Hullermann to the archdiocese.

Ratzinger was in charge, therefore Ratzinger was responsible.

2. Maciel

I'm sure I don't need to tell you about Fr. Maciel from Mexico, who was championed by JP2 and Ratzinger for years but turns Maciel had a few aliases, a few wives, a few children and - shocker - MANY adults (including some of his biological children) who claim that he sexually abused them. When an ABC reporter tried to ask Ratzinger about it, Ratzinger was indignant and slapped the reporter and told him to make an appointment. You can see it on youtube. Here's the link. It tells me a little bit about Ratzinger's view of himself and how he feels about accountability to the common man.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhEUwxadh7U&feature=related


3. Kiesle

The Associated Press has reported that in November 1985 Ratzinger personally sent a letter to the Bishop of Oakland, CA, regarding Fr. Stephen Kiesle. Only last Friday the Vatican confirmed the authenticity of the letter and Ratzinger's signature on it. Kiesle was a priest with a history of raping children, going back to a 1978 conviction for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory. In 1981 Kiesle himself and his bishop tried to get him laicized. Ratzinger's 1985 letter on the topic says basically that they should think about it some more and consider the ''good of the universal church'' and the ''detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age.'' Ratzinger's letter makes it 100% clear that he doesn't care that his priest is a convicted child rapist. Kiesle was finally laicized in 1987, then got married and was then arrested and charged in 2002 with 13 counts of child molestation. You're either part of the problem or part of the solution and in this case, Ratzinger was part of the problem.

I'm surprised you are unaware of these matters, since news accounts were printed by the mainstream media in a variety of local and national newspapers from Philly to Kentucky, Tucson, Maine, Oregon. A simple web search will bring it all up.

I think it is good for the church that people are questioning Ratzinger's actions. As I said, we all know we've had corrupt popes in the past. How else can we know if we have one right now without due inquiry?

Fr Martin Fox said...

Pat:

Your item about Oakland doesn't track.

A "dispensation" doesn't apply in involuntary laicization; it applies when a priest applies for voluntary laicization. (Please read my post, this is what I was talking about.)

The letter you cite from Ratzinger appears to be a response to the priest's own letter. Do you contend the priest, himself, wrote to Ratzinger, telling the Cardinal he was a child rapist?

As to the case in Germany, I'd like to hear more about that.

As to Maciel, I think you're being unfair to Pope Benedict. When he got the chance, he pushed Maciel out of the picture, and has instigated a thorough review of the Legion.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Pat:

Also, when you keep saying "corrupt popes," that discredits your argument.

Or is it your argument that Pope Benedict approves of child abuse, or is being bought off?

Evidence?

Pat said...

I'm saying Ratzinger slapped a US journalist in the street because he asked Ratzinger a question about Fr. Maciel, a rapist. You see the slap as well as I do.

I'm saying that tortured discussions about "dispensations" vs. "laicizations" are beside the point. You're pointing out differences that might be interesting, but that don't make a difference to the main point. The main point being that Ratzinger knew that this priest was a child rapist and did nothing about it.

I'm saying that when the media calls Fr. Hullermann's psychiatrist and that psychiatrist says to the media, --oh, yes, I repeatedly told the Munich archdiocese that Hullermann was a pedophile and a danger to children, and the archdiocese did nothing - the it is FAIR to write about it and it is FAIR to ask who was minding the store.

Fr Martin Fox said...

I'm not going to joust with you.

The distinction between a letter from a priest, asking to be dispensed from the clerical state, and a letter from the bishop, asking it be done as a punishment, is not a minor one, which I'll explain as follows:

Presumably, the priest himself did NOT tell Ratzinger, "I molest children." He asked to be released for whatever reasons, but I'm willing to bet big money that wasn't mentioned. Do you know otherwise?

So when you assert Ratzinger knew he was a child molester when he wrote back in response--how do you know this? He would certainly have known when he received a letter from the bishop, saying so. But why do you assume a response to the priest's letter--asking a favor--means the same as a response to a bishop's letter, asking a punishment?

Since your theory is Ratzinger/Benedict doesn't care, why did he go to so much trouble to streamline the process of laicization in 2001?

Really, what possible motive can you supply for him to take the side of child molesters--that's your assertion--over everyone else?

Pat said...

Fr. Fox,

I didn't think we were jousting, I thought we were discussing how fair people are being to Ratzinger. Speaking of fair, should the US reporter have slapped him back? You haven't said anything about that video on you tube. I think it is IMPORTANT to know that our current pope acts like this and I think it is REASONABLE to draw conclusions about the kind of person he is.

Secondly, if you're interested in reading more about the Kiesle case, I refer you to the April 14, 2010, article by Grant Gallicho
in the Commonweal blog section. It is a point by point evisceration of another article by
Michael Sean Winters (a writer who leaps to Ratzinger's defense about the Kiesle situation). After reading Winters and the Gallicho article, it will make sense to any reasonable person that Ratzinger knew or should have known.

Lastly, I don't know what might motivate Ratzinger to take the side of a child rapist over (a) the child and (b)the faithful. Perhaps it is the same dynamic that causes a parent to cover up the crimes of one of their children. If you're really wondering, though, why don't you ask the Irish bishops who did exactly that. Or ask Cardinal Law (formerly of Boston).

Fr Martin Fox said...

Pat:

I don't know why Cardinal Ratzinger whacked the reporter on the hand. I decline to draw conclusions.

Second, I went and read the article at Commonweal, and it doesn't address the key question, which you don't, either.

You assume as fact that the letter from Ratzinger was written (a) in response to the bishop's request for involuntary laicization, as a punishment for the priest's crimes, and/or, (b) was written back to the priest in question, while cognizant of that priest's own crimes.

You assume this and you assert it, without demonstrating it is true. Of course, I'm a little sluggish, so maybe I'm missing something. But I have yet to see you or the article you cite--from Commonweal of all places!--actually demonstrating this is true.

Rather, it sure seems like someone is taking the response, which likely was to the priest's own letter, and which I am very confident did not detail his crimes, and matching it to the bishop's request. Well, that's not cricket.

Also, my understanding is that the laicization requested by the bishop, happened within the next couple of years.

In the meantime, the bishop could--and should--have removed the priest from active ministry. If that didn't happen, I fail to see how that blame attaches to anyone but the bishop.

(Sorry, after I posted this, I caught many errors, so I am a bit sluggish this Sunday afternoon; I fixed and reposted.)

Pat said...

What do you mean you don't know why Ratzinger slapped the reporter? You're being unfair to the situation. Watch the video. Ratzinger is chastizing the reporter WHILE striking him and , saying, "you don't ask me this here!"
When was the last time YOU struck someone in the street? And frankly, of course you draw conclusions about the man based on his behavior that you can see with your own eyes. Look, your unwillingness to admit that this was a bad moment for Ratzinger is a little suspect. I mean, it's a rather minor moment - as compared to the significant matters this pope is lately accused of.

Back to the fairness question, though, you say that the pope is being treated unfairly. I disagree. I ask again, what about the psychiatrist who asserts that he persistently told Ratzinger's team that Hullermann was a danger to children and the archdiocese merely shuffled him around. How is that kind of reporting unfair to Ratzinger? he was archbishop. He either knew or he should have known.

Also, did I sufficiently answer your question as to what might motivate Ratzinger to cover up for his fellow clerics who abuse children, or is there more to discus on that matter?

Theresa said...

Pat,
I recall watching that interview at the time it aired years ago. The reporter was being annoying, as they are taught to be. Card. Ratzinger had already told him several times that this was not the time or place to discuss the matter. He did not say that he would not discuss the matter. He was not prepared at that moment. He said something like "Come to me at a different time" and "this is not a convenient time". I am glad the Cardinal did not talk about such a serious matter off the cuff to an annoying American reporter. I don't think the little slap he gave the reporter hurt him any. It looked more like the kind of swat you would give a fly to get it to go away, not to hurt it. I agree that it does not seem like the most polite thing to do, but no one is perfect, and it certainly was not egregious. Not to excuse it, but the reporter was not being polite, either.

Pope Benedict is the one who took action against Fr. Maciel, and very serious action at that.
Removing him from public ministry was not enough?

Pat said...

Fr: The force of the slap is not my point. It is the fact of it. It seems that you and I were taught different things about slapping a man in public, no matter how annoying you find him.

Was removing Maciel enough? No. The details that we know about Maciel - the high level of regard and position he was granted by JP2 and Ratzinger, the secret wives, the secret aliases, the illegitimate children and the repeated sexual abuse - - cannot be wiped away easily. Couple that with the abuse in the USA and Canada, the shameful reports out of Ireland where a Bishop made a young boy sign a secrecy statement about his abuse, the matters in Germany when Ratzinger was archbishop, are collectively evidence of a systemic problem in the worldwide church that calls for a systemic and public response. Head should be rolling - many of them - and thi pope should be doing much more than allowing Vatican response to be limited to calling media reports "petty gossip," calling for "repentance," and describing the actions of a few as "shameful." He needs to do much more and it is FAIR for the media to call him out on all of this.

Pat said...

Fr: The force of the slap is not my point. It is the fact of it. It seems that you and I were taught different things about slapping a man in public, no matter how annoying you find him.

Was removing Maciel enough? No. The details that we know about Maciel - the high level of regard and position he was granted by JP2 and Ratzinger, the secret wives, the secret aliases, the illegitimate children and the repeated sexual abuse - - cannot be wiped away easily. Couple that with the abuse in the USA and Canada, the shameful reports out of Ireland where a Bishop made a young boy sign a secrecy statement about his abuse, the matters in Germany when Ratzinger was archbishop, are collectively evidence of a systemic problem in the worldwide church that calls for a systemic and public response. Head should be rolling - many of them - and thi pope should be doing much more than allowing Vatican response to be limited to calling media reports "petty gossip," calling for "repentance," and describing the actions of a few as "shameful." He needs to do much more and it is FAIR for the media to call him out on all of this.

Bob Blum said...

I think one of the most poignant parts of your commentary is "yet we know these crimes happen in other religious settings, in schools, sports teams and elsewhere, where celibacy and Catholic theology have nothing to do with it." These crimes are still being committed. Maybe the whole thing *needs* to be stirred up a bit regularly to keep us all vigilant. Where does it say popes, bishops, and priests are they only ones responsible for safeguarding the vulnerable among us? Doesn't scripture admonish us all to take care of the weak and vulnerable? I think the fact that we're having this discussion with so many comments is a good thing. However, just because a few priests are "busted", doesn't afford us the luxury of saying, "well, we're glad that's over; that'll never happen, again." As soon as we let down our vigilance, it'll happen again.
Via con Dios

Pat said...

Bob:
Kudos to you for seeing the value of open debate about the Pope, the hierarchy and their actions.

From the Most recent "New Yorker" Magazine:

"It is not “anti-Catholic” to hypothesize that these things may have something to do with the Church’s extraordinary difficulty in coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse. . . . . To the extent that the Church manages to purge itself of its shame—its sins, its crimes—it will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacher—and the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants."

Fr Martin Fox said...

Bob:
Kudos to you for seeing the value of open debate about the Pope, the hierarchy and their actions.

From the Most recent "New Yorker" Magazine:

"It is not “anti-Catholic” to hypothesize that these things may have something to do with the Church’s extraordinary difficulty in coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse. . . . . To the extent that the Church manages to purge itself of its shame—its sins, its crimes—it will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacher—and the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants."

Oh bosh.

First Commonweal, next the New Yorker? Can Jack Chick pamphlets be far behind as citations?

"...the Church’s extraordinary difficulty in coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse..."

"Extraordinary"...as compared to what? The notion that these crimes are somehow a special problem of the Catholic Church is anti-Catholic--because the facts are that all institutions, involving care of children, are experiencing these problems. Yet the media have not done the same due diligence about how other institutions have grappled with these issues.

"Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacher—and the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants."

Yeah...tell it to the millions of unborn children, whom the secularists are content to consign to the garbage heap--and wish like **** the d*** Church would shut up about.

It's one thing to fault many--in the Church and outside--for inaction or poor judgment or actual, corrupt behavior, either in committing crimes against children or allowing others to do so.

But this preening commentary by the New Yorker or anyone else from a "secularist" point of view?

No way.

You'd do better to cite the story of Balaam--to get the prophet's attention, God chose the expedient of having the ass speak.

Pat said...

No, not bosh. The New Yorker is the most honored magazine in the history of the industry, having received 187 nominations and 47 wins at the National Magazine Awards, including for General Excellence, the magazine world’s highest honor. Mr. Hertzberg, the author of the article that you try to dismiss so easily, is the Harvard educated political editor of the magazine. Previously, he was editor of The New Republic, a fellow at two institutes at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Under his editorship The New Republic twice won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

You may disagree, but you can't dismiss his work as mere bosh. It's insulting the people who actually study for and work in that industry, and in particular those whose work has been deemed excellent by their peers.