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What Did the Pope Know, and When Did He Know It?

4 years ago
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That is the question every scandal-plagued politician fears, mainly because it has no good answer. Once the public starts framing the inquiry that way, it generally means they don't trust the responses given so far -- as well as the person giving the answers -- and likely won't put much faith in what comes next, no matter how sincere the reassurances.

That Pope Benedict XVI finds himself in this unenviable position Thursday morning is a result of both a "tsunami" of stories -- the word used by an Austrian cardinal close to the pontiff -- concerning the sexual abuse of children by clerics across Europe, but also of the steady, and personally more damaging, drip of revelations about Benedict's own track record in dealing with abusers.

The pope's responsibility came to the fore in two ways on Thursday.

One was a protest in front of the Vatican by members of the leading American-based clergy abuse victims group, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

"I would ask the pope if he would please open up the files from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and turn over all the information to the police," said Barbara Blaine, the president of SNAP and one of four leaders of the group in Rome on Thursday. All of them were sexually abused by priests. As Reuters reported, they held up photos of themselves as children and signs reading "Stop the Secrecy Now."

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was headed by the pope for more than 23 years when he was a cardinal, and it deals with cases of sexual abuse.

The other development was a story in Thursday's issue of The New York Times, and it is shocking: That top Vatican officials, including Benedict, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and chief guardian of doctrine for Rome, did not take action, despite pleas from some American bishops, against a Wisconsin priest who molested hundreds of deaf boys.
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal. . . .

The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.

In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee's archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican's secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy's dismissal.

But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church's own statute of limitations.
This is not an isolated story. Over recent weeks hundreds of abuse cases from past decades have emerged in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and the pope's homeland, Germany -- in particular Bavaria, the deeply Catholic southern German region where Joseph Ratzinger was born and raised. The stories seemed to be touched off by investigations in Ireland that cataloged thousands of cases of clergy abuse of children over decades, shaking the church in that once-devoutly Catholic island to its foundations.

The most problematic case thus far for Benedict concerned his 1977-1982 tenure as archbishop of Munich, when he accepted a priest, Father Peter Hullermann, into the diocese for psychological evaluation and treatment after Hullermann had sexually abused a number of children. The priest was soon reassigned to a parish, where he went on to abuse more children for years, even after Ratzinger left to become a top doctrinal official at the Vatican.

Lower-ranking church officials in Munich took responsibility for Hullermann's reassignment (one of them resigned) and said Ratzinger did not know about it. Many find that assertion dubious, and the psychiatrist who treated Hullermann has said he repeatedly warned the Munich archdiocese that the priest should be kept away from children.

Even the pope's older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, has been embroiled in the wave of revelations, as he admitted that he used to slap boys in the famous Bavarian church choir he directed for 30 years, until his retirement in 1994. The elder Ratzinger is not accused of engaging in anything other than the kind of corporal punishment that was common at the time, but he acknowledged that he knew boys had been physically abused by other priests and he did not tell authorities.

All this news comes as Benedict has been trying to reassure Catholics, most recently in his letter to Irish Catholics, that the church is doing everything possible to protect children. He also criticizes Irish Catholics themselves for not practicing their faith sufficiently, as well as pointing to two of his favorite punching bags, "secularism" and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, as responsible in part for the abuse scandals.

Benedict does use strong words about bishops who made "serious mistakes" in failing to rein in abusers, and there are indications that some episcopal heads will roll -- which is what Catholics want to see as much as penalties for any abusive priests who may still be alive or at large.

On Wednesday, Benedict accepted the resignation of Bishop John Magee, once a powerful figure who had served as a personal aide to three popes before taking over the Cloyne diocese in Ireland in 1987. But recent investigations showed that Magee covered up for abusive priests, and his career has been in limbo for a year. Other Irish bishops are also facing pressure to resign, though whether Benedict will accept their resignations is unknown.

The new revelations about Benedict's own track record could complicate his efforts to make the hierarchy appear accountable, as targeted bishops will wonder why they should pay a penalty for the same decisions the pope himself once made.

Meanwhile, the SNAP protests by victims did not help the Vatican's cause, or that of the pope.

SNAP leader Barbara Blaine and the other protesters were taken away away by the police, who confiscated their passports as they took them in for questioning.

Meanwhile, a top papal aide, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, told reporters that the news reports were evidence of "a conspiracy" against the church.

"This is a pretext for attacking the church," he said. "There is a well-organized plan with a very clear aim," he said, without spelling out who was behind it.

Saraiva Martins said that while he was in favor of zero tolerance now, he could understand why some bishops covered up cases of child abuse in the past.

"We should not be too scandalized if some bishops knew about it but kept it secret. This is what happens in every family, you don't wash your dirty laundry in public," he said.

Such comments are not likely to play with the many Catholics who are demanding accountability -- of Benedict XVI and other bishops.

The danger is not so much that the pope will resign -- that won't happen, and maybe can't happen, under the church's arcane rules and traditions.

The real risk is that with new reports of his own record emerging seemingly daily, with doubts about his candor growing just as quickly, and with protesters parading in front of the Vatican, the bishop of Rome, despite the aura and authority of his office -- handed down from St. Peter himself -- will begin to look like every other bishop these days. And that's most definitely not a good thing for him -- or the church.

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