On March 25, the New York Times published a now thoroughly discredited front-page story suggesting that Joseph Ratzinger, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had willfully impeded sanctions against a clerical sexual abuser in Milwaukee who had preyed on the deaf children in his care.
Taking that date, and that calumny against Benedict XVI, as an arbitrary American ground zero in the latest round of assaults depicting the Catholic Church as a Rome-based global criminal conspiracy of perverts and their enablers, where do things stand, two and a half weeks into what at first seemed poised to become a scandal as devastating as the Catholic Church in America’s Long Lent of eight years ago?
It’s not 2002. During the Long Lent, the press played an important role in dragging into the light of day awful things the Church had failed to confront, or had confronted ineptly. The shame of that period still stings, as do the wounds suffered by victims. Yet 2010 is not 2002, and that is in large measure due to 2002.
Despite the ignorance and tendentiousness displayed by too many journalists and commentators in recent weeks (including Catholic commentators seeking another opportunity to revive the Revolution That Never Was—or, in the case of Patrick J. Buchanan, to revive the Golden Age That Never Was), the facts are slowly getting out, thanks in part to the unprecedented studies and audits authorized by the bishops of the United States in the wake of the Long Lent.
Reasonable people whose perceptions are not warped by the toxin of anti-Catholicism or who are not pursuing other (often financially-driven) agendas now recognize that the Church in the U.S. and Canada has bent enormous efforts towards cleaning up what Cardinal Ratzinger called in 2005 its “filth,” to the point where the Catholic Church today can be empirically shown to be the safest environment for young people and children in North America. The paralyzing drumbeat of one ghastly new story after another that went on all during 2002 has not been repeated. What we now have is, largely, the recycling of old material, usually provided to the press by contingent-fee attorneys whose strategic goal is to build a public “narrative” of conspiracy that will shape American courts’ decisions as to whether the Vatican and its resources can be brought within range of U.S. liability law.
The realization among serious Catholics that this is not 2002 and that things have changed dramatically since 2002, has led to a far more confident effort to fight back against misrepresentations such as those the Times perpetrated on March 25. There is a danger here: to recognize that this is not 2002 cannot blind us to the fact that there are wounds that remain to be healed, reforms of priestly formation that remain to be completed, bishops whose failures remain to be recognized and dealt with, new norms for the selection of bishops to be implemented, and accounts rendered as to why the Vatican, prior to Ratzinger’s taking control of the issue of clerical sexual abuse in the late 1990s, was sometimes sluggish in its response to scandalous behavior by priests and deficient leadership by bishops.
Assuming, however, that Benedict XVI has set in motion processes that will lead to all those lingering issues being forcefully addressed, a serious question can now be credibly posed: Are those most vigorously agitating these abuse/misgovernance issues today genuinely interested in the safety of young people and children, or are they using the failures of the past to cripple the moral credibility of the Catholic Church in the present and future? That question would have rightly struck many people as a dodge in 2002. It cannot be credibly regarded as a dodge today, because of what the Church has done since 2002 (and, indeed, since the 1990s, when the plague of abuse within the Church began to recede).
The Vatican response. During the first months of the Long Lent of 2002, John Paul II was not well-served by his Washington nunciature or by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. The nunciature was not providing the papal apartment with detailed, real-time information (in April 2002, when Cardinal Bernard Law first offered his resignation, the pope and his closest associates were at least three months behind the information-curve, and were just experiencing in April what Americans had lived through in January); the prefect of Clergy, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, made matters worse by blowing off reporters’ questions about the scandals when presenting John Paul’s 2002 Holy Thursday letter to priests, explaining that the pope had more important things to worry about, like Middle East peace.
Things have changed for the better since those dark days. The Holy See Press Office, not previously known for prompt or effective crisis-management in this pontificate, has quickly brought serious, credible information and commentary to bear in recent weeks as different charges have been laid against Benedict XVI. The pope’s own March letter to the Church in Ireland—far too quickly consigned to media oblivion—demonstrated to those with the eyes to read such documents accurately that Benedict had wrestled the Curia into understanding that a pastoral outreach to victims, the public condemnation of abusive clergy and religious, sharp criticism of malfeasant bishops, and dramatic reform actions were necessary in this and similar situations.
There are still things that the Holy See doesn’t get quite right. During Holy Week, it was hoped that the pope would speak in his own voice, largely through the Church’s sacramental encounter with the central drama of salvation history. Yet the two most memorable moments of Holy Week 2010 were created by secondary figures. During the solemn Good Friday liturgy at St. Peter’s, the preacher to the papal household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, inserted into his homily a commentary on the current situation in which he seemed to agree with a (Jewish) friend that what the recent assault on the Church was analogous to the horrors of historic anti-Semitism.
Two days later, at the beginning of the papal Easter Sunday Mass, the dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, chose the unfortunate phrase “petty gossip” to describe what was in fact a determined attack on the Church’s credibility. Despite these missteps, however, the truth seems to have gotten out, if slowly and incompletely: the single most influential figure in reshaping the Roman Curia’s attitude toward these scandals and the Church’s legal practice in dealing with them, was Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.
The plaintiff’s bar cannot concede this, for to do so would be to destroy the narrative it has been selling to the world media; Ratzinger’s enemies cannot concede this, for they have never been able to find good in him; and European secularists cannot concede this, for in their minds the Church is, in principle, irreformably corrupt—Voltaire’s L’infame. But those willing to look at facts and evidence have begun to understand just how crucial a role Ratzinger played in ensuring that 2010 did not automatically become 2002 redivivus.
Nailing down that counter-narrative would be considerably aided if, in the coming weeks, a comprehensive and documented narrative of the case of a predatory Munich priest which was mishandled during Ratzinger’s tenure as archbishop there—the revelation of which was the European ground zero for the latest set of explosions—would be published. It would also be helpful if the Holy See would provide a user-friendly explanation of how abusive priests are laicized, and how this process has been streamlined and accelerated, again under Ratzinger’s leadership. There is no harm in acknowledging that, like just about everyone else, Joseph Ratzinger was on a learning curve in dealing with abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops; the point to be stressed, however, is that he learned faster, and acted more decisively on what he had learned, than just about anyone else.
Mud Sticking. The 2010 edition of Scandal Time is by no means finished. Attorneys and others will continue to release documents implying that Ratzinger “stalled” laicizations decades ago (when in fact what he was doing was following the canonical norms of the time—norms he was later instrumental in changing).
The papal pilgrimage to Great Britain in September, which will include the beatification of John Henry Newman, is in trouble, with the clerical head of the Church of England, Dr. Rowan Williams, getting ecumenical payback by asserting that the Catholic Church has lost its credibility and the loopier elements of the British press and commentariat suggesting that the pope ought to be served with an arrest warrant on his arrival in the U.K.; the BBC has been particularly egregious in its skewed coverage and discussion of Munich, Milwaukee, and other cases. In the face of all this, the bishops of Britain must recognize that scandal-mongering has now metastasized into a full-scale assault on Catholicism itself, and ought to devote the next four months to the most vigorous defense of the truth of Catholic faith. It would also be helpful if Benedict XVI would meet with British and Irish abuse victims during his time in the U.K., as he did in the United States and Australia.
As for the future of the Church in Ireland, the gravity of the situation there would seem to provide an opportunity for Rome to take dramatic action. While the retirement of one Irish bishop, John Magee of Cloyne, was accepted in the wake of the papal letter of March 2010, it was not clear that this measure was in response to serious problems in handling abuse cases in Cloyne that had become public knowledge. Yet if 2010 is not to become 2002 redivivus, the Holy See must make unmistakably clear that it is serious about dealing with malfeasant bishops: that, in addition to swift action against abusive priests, the Church is prepared to take swift and decisive action against episcopal misgovernance.
This is not a matter of appeasing the media pack and its baying for blood; it is a matter of self-respect and the integrity of the Church’s institutional life. Over the past century and a half, the Holy See has gained the freedom to choose bishops freely throughout the world Church; that has been one of the signal accomplishments of Vatican diplomacy. To claim the right to choose bishops freely, however, carries with it the responsibility to address episcopal failure, even by the ultimate remedy of deposition in extreme cases. Procedures for accelerating the laicization of abusive clergy have been put in place in Rome; parallel procedures for determining when a bishop has lost the capacity to govern because of a thorough and irremediable collapse of his credibility as a leader and shepherd ought to be devised and implemented. It is widely expected that the upcoming apostolic visitation to certain Irish dioceses will result in sweeping change in Catholic leadership in Ireland. That change ought to be effected sooner rather than later, and explicitly linked to the reforms for which Benedict called in his letter to the Irish Church.
Cynicism and irony are powerful corrosives in ecclesiastical life. Yet they cannot withstand the power of radical conversion, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism. In North America, in Great Britain and Ireland, in Germany and Austria and the Netherlands, indeed all over the world Church, these are the most effective counters to the current wave of Church-bashing and Catholic-baiting.
And here, at least, there is one appropriate parallel to be drawn between 2010 and 2002: The only answer to what is at bottom a crisis of fidelity is deeper, more radical fidelity to the truth borne by the earthen vessel of the Church.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and author of The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of (Basic Books).