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A long article in today’s New York Times reports on some of the Vatican’s early responses to the sex-abuse crisis. The facts in the story, such as they are, appear good to know. But what the article tries to draw from it all . . .

In fact, of Pope Benedict’s career as Cardinal Ratzinger, reporters Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger announce the strong conclusion: “The future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction.”

And how do they get there? Something along these lines:

Implied verdict #1 : The irresponsible cardinal was thinking about theology when he should have been meeting with canon lawyers 24/7 to perfect procedures for prosecuting abusers.

Evidence for verdict #1 : Although the sex abuse scandal made big news with revelations in Boston in 2002, there were plenty of early warning signs. And what was then Cardinal Ratzinger doing with his time? Not sorting out the legal procedures for dealing with disciplining accused sex abusers, but instead formulating theological reasons for rejecting the doctrinal distortions of liberation theology. Or, as Goodstein and Halbfinger mockingly report, examining the credibility of claims about apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Implied verdict #2 : Ratzinger culpably hindered the efforts by bishops to deal with the sex abuse scandal—and did so out of an obviously irrelevant concern about ecclesiology.

Evidence for verdict #2 : In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken the most forceful position in disciplining sex abusers. As cardinal, however, Ratzinger spoke against the pretension of national bishop conferences, saying that they have “no theological basis” and “do not belong to the structure of the church.” Individual bishops, Ratzinger argued, function as the legitimate ecclesial authority in relation to Rome, not national conferences.

Implied verdict #3 : Ratzinger was part of a cabal of leaders in Rome who blocked reform—and did so out of a tender, irrational, and irresponsible regard for legalistic protections of accused clergy.

Evidence for verdict #3 : It turns out the Roman authorities tend to assume innocence rather than guilt, giving the benefit of doubt to accused priests. The 1983 code of canon law established a five-year statute of limitations for accusations against clergy. (John Paul II subsequently extended it to ten years after the victim’s eighteenth birthday.) Moreover, the Vatican resisted efforts to substitute administrative judgment for a full ecclesiastical trial for defrocking clerics accused of sexual abuse.

Implied verdict #4 : Ratzinger should have known about his jurisdictional authority—and this in spite of the fact that, as Goodstein and Halbfinger report, pretty much everybody in Rome was unaware of obscure instructions on the point.

Evidence for verdict #4 : Way back in 1922, papal instructions invested the Holy Office (Ratzinger’s domain as cardinal, retitled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after Vatican II) with authority to deal directly with sexual abuse cases involving priests. This instruction was acknowledged by Ratziner only in 2001.

Implied verdict #5 : His head was in the theological clouds. Anybody with a scintilla of true Christian leadership would have remade himself as a canon lawyer as soon as he hears the news of the first sex-abuse scandal.

Evidence for verdict #5 : A meeting was held in 2000, to address bureaucratic and canonical changes, but Ratzinger attended only intermittently and didn’t say much.

I could go on, but it would be tedious. It’s almost always tedious to refute tendentious reporting.

In any event the article ends up refuting itself, because the various bishops closely involved in the Vatican’s admittedly inadequate responses to the sexual-abuse crisis uniformly praise Ratzinger. Australia’s Archbishop Wilson is typical. After the 2000 meeting, he reported: “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward.”

Move forward. Sigh. The Catholic Church rarely hurries, so the moving forward accomplished after 2000 has often turned out to be slow, cumbersome, and tone deaf. There is much, much, to criticize, and there are important questions to ask.

Why did (and do) some church officials retreat into clichés, interpreting critical reporting of the sexual abuse scandals as part of a larger secular attack on the Church?

Has the Church wrongly presumed the innocence of accused priests in its canonical procedures? Or is our current frenzy over sexual abuse distorting our larger sense of justice?

Do we want the Vatican to be a more efficient bureaucratic machine, clearer in its procedures and more aggressive in its use of authority? Or is the relatively cumbersome reality of Vatican authority a source of a desirable ecclesiastical pluralism and liberty?

Do we want Church leaders expert in canon law or learned in theology? Do we want efficient bureaucrats who know about all the obscure rules and instructions, or inspired men of faith?

Unfortunately, the mandarins at the New York Times seem incapable of entertaining these sorts of questions. They are more interested in a hatchet job for which, in truth, they couldn’t find enough timber on which to chop away.

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