Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Pope's Problem

I really didn’t want to come back to this subject again, but the continuing revelations about abuse within the Catholic Church in Germany and the reaction of the Vatican just cannot go uncommented. A few weeks ago I predicted here that the situation was going to cause problems for Pope Benedict XVI. Even then I hadn’t realised how serious they might potentially be.

It was confirmed this week that during Josef Ratzinger’s last years as Archbishop of Munich a priest from the Diocese of Essen, who had been accused of sexual abuse of an eleven-year-old, was transferred to Munich. Ratzinger agreed to the transfer. The reason for the transfer, according to church sources, was so that the man could undergo therapy in Munich. However, this therapy never took place; instead the priest in question was appointed to a parish. A few years later, he was convicted of sexual abuse of minors in Bavaria and given a suspended sentence. He has continued to work in the Munich diocese, although he no longer officially has contact with children.

Assigning the man to parish work was a grave mistake, the Church admits; the sole responsibility for this decision has been taken by the Vicar General of the Archdiocese at the time. While it is possible that the assignment might have been reported to Ratzinger’s office, there is no reason to necessarily believe that archbishop personally approved it. The archbishop was a busy man, there were nearly a thousand priests in the archdiocese at the time, such appointments were the responsibility of the vicar general.

All of this is, superficially, credible. But there is at least one misrepresentation in this statement and a number of deeper questions are conveniently ignored. Of the nearly thousand priests referred to in official church statements, a large minority would have been members of religious orders and congregations, with whom the archbishop per se had practically nothing to do. So the number of priests for whom he was personally responsible was quite a bit smaller.

The deeper questions are more serious. The church has confirmed that Ratzinger had initially agreed to accept the man from the diocese of Essen. Generally speaking, inter-diocesan transfers of priests are not particularly common within the Catholic Church. They happen, of course, but a priest would, in the normal course of events, have to explain to his bishop why he wanted such a transfer and it would be usual to explain the move to his new bishop and diocese as well. If the move took place at the behest of the religious authorities in Essen, it seems very unlikely that the background would not have been explained to his new bishop – in this case Ratzinger.

So, it seems at least quite likely that Archbishop Ratzinger knew why the Diocese of Essen was presenting him with a new priest. It seems probable, reading between the lines of the various Church statements, that the issue of therapy was mentioned.

The astounding thing is – if the Church accounts are true, and Ratzinger knew nothing of the man’s assignment to parish work – that in the nearly two years before he left Munich to take up his new position in Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Ratzinger apparently never troubled to enquire how things were working out with that man from Essen, you know, ahem, the one with that problem. For the Church, and Josef Ratzinger, there is no good answer to this. Either he didn’t ask, and was thus profoundly negligent in his responsibility for the children in his diocese, or he did ask, was told about the parish assignment and saw no problem – once again profound negligence of his responsibility for the children in his diocese. (The only other explanation, one that could just get him personally off the hook, is that he did ask and was lied to, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that yet.)

Twenty years later, in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter to all bishops advising them that all cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were to be subject to pontifical secret. Many canon law experts have stated that this secrecy order would not prohibit bishops and religious superiors from reporting suspected crimes to the police. The Irish bishops have, however, stated recently that many of their number misunderstood the letter on just this point and, while the Irish bishops may not the brightest group of men on earth, there is no major reason to believe that they are substantially denser than their colleagues in other parts of the world.

The deeper question is, of course, whether this misinterpretation was due to the stupidity of some bishops or whether it was actually planned for. One is reminded of Cardinal Connell’s explanation of the concept of mental reservation with respect to economy with the truth in the dealings of the Irish Church authorities with abuse cases. It does seem remarkable that, in a letter which lays down precise procedures for dealing with cases of sexual abuse, the then Cardinal Ratzinger did not feel it necessary to give any recommendations regarding contact with the civil authorities in such cases. The least that can be assumed is that misinterpretation was possible and it is not a very big step to speculate that it was wished for. After all, what normal bishop, sensitive above all to conform to the image of being ever obedient to Rome and wary – in light of a long, sometimes murky history – of attracting the closer attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office, earlier still as the Holy Inquisition), would not hesitate to approach the police about such cases following a letter which told him to put them under the seal of pontifical secrecy and made no mention of reporting them to the civil authorities?

The facts coming to light in the past weeks force me to the conclusion that the pope has no interest in genuinely dealing with this matter in an open way, of sincerely apologising on behalf of the church for all the suffering that has been caused by the way the church failed to remove abusers from positions in which they could continue their perverse cruelty and by the way it has treated those abused with browbeating, ignorance and contempt. The fact that the Vatican is reacting with a counterattack on those raising questions in Germany does not signal a readiness to really face up to issues. Frederico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman stated on Saturday, “In the past days there have been some who, with a certain doggedness, have been trying to find elements in Regensburg and Munich in order to drag the Holy Father personally into questions of abuse.” He added that they had “failed.”

Monsignor Lombardi is very wrong here; there is no need to drag the pope into such questions. He’s already right there in the middle of them.

(Sources: Der Spiegel, Irish Independent, Irish Times)

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