Benedict: The Counter-Narrative Forms

Previous I Read The News Today Entry | Next I Read The News Today Entry

Benedict: The Counter-Narrative Forms

          Who was responsible for what?  That will be a hard question for journalists any time they have to find answers within a large and secretive international organization whose headquarters are a sovereign nation, and whose lines of authority are unclear and changing.  Yet that is the task confronting reporters seeking to determine what role and responsibilities Benedict XVI had with respect to the child abuse scandals now roiling the Church.

          Owing to various cases reported on by, among others, the New York Times and the Associated Press, various commentators, including myself in this blog, have concluded that Benedict was “in the loop” at times, either deciding to try to return supposedly rehabilitated priests to action, or having a role in prolonging ecclesiastical trials, or promulgating rules keeping the trials secret.

          There have been two kinds of responses.  One sort, ad hominem attacks on the media as “petty gossips” or classical anti-clericals, of which we saw two instances from the Holy See during Holy Week, is simply vile.  To the extent the reporting resembles gossip, in that it deals with fragments of a story about which the principals keep their silence, that resemblance is entirely the fault of the Church, which withholds much of the salient information.  And certainly anti-clericalism exists, but I see no trace of it in the reporting on which I and much of the responsible comment in the world have been relying.  It is easy to charge anti-clericalism, impossible to refute it objectively, and the charge has a bad history of being true only when the Church has behaved in such a fashion as to provoke it.

          The more reasonable response has been the construction of a counter-narrative, seen for instance in recent comments by William McGurn in theWall Street Journal, Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, and former Archbishop Thomas Brundage , posted online.  In this narrative: a) the reporters are getting key details wrong or omitting them; b) this leads to giving an overall wrong picture; and c) the right picture is of a Pope gradually but decisively growing into the one who blew the whistle, and getting inadequate credit for it.

          Let’s examine these elements.  Exhibit A in all of these comments is Laurie Goodstein’s March 25, 2010 story in the New York Times concerning Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who abused 200 children at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee over three decades.  Goodstein wrote that Murphy “was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system.”  It has been pointed out that the accuracy of this statement depends on how you parse “tried or disciplined.”  By the time of his death in 1998, Murphy had been stripped of his priestly functions (though not his priestly status), had been told not to have unsupervised contact with minors, and had not been the subject of any accusations of misconduct for 24 years.  Moreover, a trial was begun (a fact Goodstein reported) and though it was stopped by Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a fact Goodstein made the centerpiece of her article), it was halted only two days before Murphy’s death (though apparently the Congregation would have known only that Murphy was in bad health) — on compassionate grounds and because Murphy had gone so long without incurring new charges.

          It sounds as if Goodstein, intentionally or not, exaggerated the impunity Murphy enjoyed, and made the trial that Ratzinger shut down seem perhaps more capable of yielding a meaningful outcome than it truly was.  Let us concede this.  Let us go further, and concede that the paper trail stops one or two levels shy of Ratzinger in many of these cases.  (Although not in what as of this writing is the newest one, involving a California priest, Stephen Kiesle, where Ratzinger’s signature is right on the document slowing down a move to defrock him – albeit this was in 1986, before Ratzinger’s awakening to the urgency of getting abusers out from Church-sponsored access to youngsters.)

          How much does it alter the big picture, though?  In the years when the Murphy trial was going forward, Ratzinger was well known to be second only to Pope John Paul II in power and influence within the Church.  He did not use his influence, so far as we know, to publicize what Murphy did, to encourage Murphy’s victims to come forward, to vindicate them publicly or to compensate them.  Instead, he shut down a secret trial, in secret, and, but for the sleuthing of Goodstein and of some victims’ lawyers (excoriated, naturally, in the Wall Street Journal merely because they stand to profit – and the WSJ gets indignant about profit by plaintiffs’ lawyers while cheering the obscene compensation of the titans of Wall Street), we’d never know anything about it at all.  To this day.  And the reason we only find out about this now, and that a Laurie Goodstein finds the salient details a little hard to come by, is that even after the publicity, the Church has not released any documents from the abortive trial: no charging papers, no evidence, no nothing.

          Let us look at the big picture as the Pope’s apologists would have us see it.  They would say that Benedict, whose authority at the Congregation had extended originally to only to those priestly sexual misconduct cases that were an abuse of the confessional, made a welcome change in 2001 by taking the remaining cases away from the Rota, where cases had dragged on for years, and lodging them with the Congregation, where they went much more quickly.

          Moreover, he met with the victims.  And in cooperation with many national Church apparatuses, certainly including the American ones, he finally instituted zero tolerance programs supported by training and backed up by sanctions with teeth.  In short, as Michael Gerson quotes the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, “Benedict grew in his understanding of the crisis. Like many other bishops at the beginning, he didn’t understand it. . . . But he grew in his understanding because he listened to what the U.S. bishops had to say. He in fact got it quicker than other people in the Vatican.”

          So, yes, arguably Ratzinger gets credit for closing the barn door.  And he has done it with a fair amount of publicity.  But most of the horses had already fled.  And it’s the fled horses that are at the root of the problem.

          As I’ve been pointing out, the Church unleashed an epidemic of abusive priests on the youth of the world for at least the last two generations.  Clearly, there have been thousands and thousands of victims.  When you create that kind of situation, you have to own up to it.  Not in some generalized statement of regret, but by making it possible for everyone who wishes to know about it to know all about it, except for whatever is necessary to protect the identities of victims who do not wish to be identified.  And of course it may lead to liability, and it may lead to people abandoning the Faith.  But concealment will lead to bigger liability and more apostasy than disclosure.  And, beyond that, disclosure is the morally right thing to do, the only morally right thing.

          The Church has gone in just the opposite direction until recently.  It flagrantly breached its duties of disclosure in promulgating and following the 1962 protocol I wrote about last time, and keeping charges and trials of priests under accusation a secret, and forcing secrecy on the victims as well.  It only slightly veered in the right direction with the changes Ratzinger instituted in 2001, which still subjected the proceedings to “the pontifical secret” – his phrase.  The new policy, to disclose these matters when civil authorities or laws demand, which seems to have been proclaimed this last week, is a good thing, but not the thing required.

          What is required is for the Church to make a clean breast of the whole affair, identifying publicly each priest reasonably believed to have been an abuser and to identify what is known of his crimes, to release all documents related to any ecclesiastical trials (with suitable redactions to protect the identities of the victims), to begin a proactive approach to compensation of victims, and to purge the enablers from the Church hierarchy.  Perhaps those who shielded abusers and delayed justice, like Ratzinger when he protected Kiesle, were not as enlightened as they later became.  But their lack of empathy and honesty and public-spiritedness at the time were nonetheless appalling, and can only be expiated by their leaving the hierarchy now.  A letter like the one protecting Kiesle should be a death warrant for the ecclesiastical career of its signatory, even 25 years later.

          No ifs, ands or buts.

          The counter-narrative may be true.  Perhaps Benedict and his cohorts have grown in wisdom and are now standing guard against abusers.  But they have a past to account for, and they cannot do so while remaining in office.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

Previous I Read The News Today Entry | Next I Read The News Today Entry

One Comment

  1. Jack, another sound piece. Thanks for the gift, sad as it is.