Under Fire

The worldwide media attack on Pope Benedict XVI reached its crescendo during Holy Week.

The month of March 2010 saw an unprecedented worldwide media attack on the Holy See and on Pope Benedict XVI, reaching a crescendo during Holy Week as journalists strove to find a direct link between the Pope and the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

The sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which produced what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus described as the “long Lent” of 2002 in the United States, worked its way across Europe in the spring of 2010. First the Irish Catholic hierarchy was pounded by revelations that the Dublin archdiocese had for years covered up evidence of abuse. Then the reports spread across the continent, bringing a series of ugly revelations in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Through it all, critics of the Catholic Church joined with lawyers and publicists for victims’ groups, insisting that the Holy See had coordinated policies throughout the Catholic hierarchy.


The first major revelations, in Ireland, were anything but a cover-up. While the US bishops had commissioned their own inquiry into the history of the sex abuse scandal, and received a report that avoided criticism of individual prelates, in Ireland the investigation of the Dublin archdiocese was undertaken by a fully independent commission, sponsored by the Irish government. The report was harshly critical of the bishops who had served in the Dublin archdiocese. Four Irish bishops offered their resignations in the aftermath of the report’s release; several others were under pressure to follow suit. As the inquiries widened, even Cardinal SeÁn Brady of Armagh, the successor to St. Patrick and Primate of All Ireland, was hearing calls for his resignation and admitting that he was weighing his position.

Pope Benedict did not ease the pressure on the Irish hierarchy when he released a pastoral letter to the Irish Church on March 19. The Pope said that “in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless children.”

After apologizing to the victims of clerical abuse, saying that “nothing can undo the wrong you have endured,” the Pontiff denounced both the priests who were guilty of “these sinful and criminal acts” and the bishops who failed to curb the abuse. Pointing out that bishops have the responsibility to protect the faithful, and noting that the Code of Canon Law gave them ample scope for disciplinary action, the Pope subjected the Irish bishops to a candid public rebuke:

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the longestablished norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.

Soon after releasing that pastoral letter, the Pope followed up by accepting the resignation of Bishop John Magee of Cloyne, whose handling of sex-abuse complaints had drawn intense criticism from public officials and from his fellow bishops. Bishop Magee had come under fire late in 2008 when a report by the independent National Safeguarding Board for Children said that the Cloyne diocese had put children at risk by failing to confront clerical abusers.
In March 2009 the Pope had removed him from active control of the Cloyne diocese and appointed an apostolic administrator, Bishop Dermot Clifford, to handle diocesan affairs. The final removal of Bishop Magee—who, prior to his episcopal consecration, had served at the Vatican as a personal secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II—was a clear signal that Benedict would hold bishops to account for their handling of the abuse issue.


The furor in Ireland had not yet run its course, however, when new complaints of sexual abuse by clerics began to arise in Germany, followed closely by reports from other European countries.

In Germany, one early complaint came painfully close to the Pontiff. Reports of abuse were heard from the choir school at Regensburg, once directed by Msgr. Georg Ratzinger. The Pope’s elder brother was not himself accused of any misconduct—although he did concede that he had sometimes slapped students, and felt pangs of conscience about it. Msgr. Ratzinger said that he had been unaware of any more serious complaints during his tenure with the Regensburg choir, but apologized nevertheless for any negligence of which he might have been guilty.

The emergence of these abuse complaints, most of them involving incidents that occurred 20 or more years ago, prompted angry outcries about another cover-up by the hierarchy. German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger charged that the Vatican had built a “wall of silence” around the abuse problem. That statement drew an angry retort from the director of the Vatican press office. Father Federico Lombardi, SJ said that bishops in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were responding with “timely and decisive action” to the recent reports. The bishops in these countries had shown a “desire for transparency” by inviting abuse victims to come forward with their stories, he said. He continued:

By doing so they have approached the matter “on the right foot,” because the correct starting point is recognition of what happened and concern for the victims and the consequences of the acts committed against them.

The Vatican spokesman reserved his strongest language for the situation in Germany. Using virtually the same words as the country’s justice minister, Father Lombardi said that a 2001 Vatican policy governing the handling of sex-abuse cases had been “sometimes improperly cited as the cause of a ‘culture of silence.’” He went on: “Those who know and understand its contents are aware that it was a decisive signal to remind the episcopate of the seriousness of the problem, as well as a real incentive to draw up operational guidelines to face it.”

In Germany, he said, Church leaders had indicated their willingness to join in a national roundtable on the abuse issue, and “Chancellor Angela Merkel had justly recognized the seriousness and constructive approach shown by the German Church.”

Father Lombardi issued a reminder that the Catholic Church has not been the only institution shaken by revelationsof sexual abuse. In Austria, for example, he noted that among 510 recent reports of abuse, only 17 have involved Church-related institutions. He said:

Certainly, the errors committed in ecclesiastical institutions and by Church figures are particularly reprehensible because of the Church’s educational and moral responsibility, but all objective and well-informed people know that the question is much broader, and concentrating accusations against the Church alone gives a false perspective.


The pressure on the Vatican mounted, however, with media accounts of an incident that occurred in Munich while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was serving as archbishop there. In 1980, a priest of the Essen diocese, having been accused of sexual abuse, was sent to Munich for counseling. Cardinal Ratzinger approved an arrangement whereby the priest—at first known only as “H,” but later identified by the New York Times as Father Peter Hullermann— would stay in a Munich rectory while undergoing treatment. “The future pope approved his transfer to Munich,” the New York Times reported. While true, that sentence was misleading; Cardinal Ratzinger had allowed the accused priest to stay in Munich, but he had not given him a parish assignment there.

Later, the vicar general of the Munich archdiocese, acting on his own initiative, assigned Father Hullermann to parish duties. And in September 1982—seven months after Cardinal Ratzinger resigned his post as archbishop of Munich, having taken up his new responsibilities as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—the wayward priest was again charged with molesting children.

The former vicar general of the Munich archdiocese, Msgr. Gerhard Gruber, has repeatedly said that he—and he alone—bears the responsibility for the unfortunate assignment of Father Hullermann to active parish ministry. The future Pope was not informed, he insists. Later the New York Times would unearth a memo announcing Hullermann’s parish assignment, and point out triumphantly—in a front-page headline story—that Cardinal Ratzinger was listed as the recipient of a copy of that memo. But informed sources in the Munich archdiocese said that the archbishop probably never saw the memo: that it had been sent to his office for its files, and probably handled by a secretary before it ever landed on the future Pontiff’s desk. And again, the author of the memo, Msgr. Gruber, insisted that Cardinal Ratzinger was not aware of the assignment. Nevertheless, reporters continued to cite the incident as a direct link between the Pope and the abuse problem.

Those claims of direct papal involvement, coupled with persistent complaints that Cardinal Ratzinger had required absolute secrecy about abuse complaints while serving as the prefect of the CDF, prompted another intervention by the Vatican press office. Father Lombardi said that Pope Benedict was “completely unconnected” with the Hullermann case. The papal spokesman took a slap at journalists who have churned out stories about the Munich case—often containing erroneous information—in an obvious effort to link the Pope to the pedophile priest. Father Lombardi said that “it is evident that over recent days some people have sought—with considerable persistence, in Regensburg and Munich—elements that could personally involve the Holy Father in questions of abuse.” He concluded: “To any objective observer, it is clear that these efforts have failed.”


Father Lombardi also stressed that the norms governing canonical trials of sex-abuse cases “did not seek, and have not favored, any kind of cover-up.” He added that the current Pope, in his years at the CDF, had pursued abuse cases with “rigor and coherence.”

The Vatican press office directed the attention of reporters to an interview with Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the “promoter of justice” at the CDF, who provided an unusual look inside the workings of that dicastery. Msgr. Scicluna, in his interview with Avvenire, also took direct aim at the charges that the CDF had sought to deflect attention from abusive priests. He angrily denounced as “false and calumnious” the accusation that then-Cardinal Ratzinger tried to cover up abuse cases.

Church investigations into abuse reports are indeed kept confidential, the Vatican prosecutor explained, in order “to protect the good name of all the people involved”—both the abuse victims and the priests who may be unjustly accused. However, the norms do not prevent victims from alerting civil law enforcement officials. In countries such as the US, where reporting of child abuse is mandatory, the Church demands that bishops make those reports. In other countries, Church officials are asked to encourage the victims to contact prosecutors.

Msgr. Scicluna revealed that in 2003 and 2004 “a great wave of cases” reached the CDF, most of them coming from the US, where the sex-abuse scandal had already exploded. During the past decade, he said, the office has handled about 3,000 cases.

Most of these 3,000 cases have not involved the sexual abuse of young children, the prosecutor said. “We can say that about 60 percent of the cases chiefly involved sexual attraction toward adolescents of the same sex, another 30 percent involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining 10 percent were cases of pedophilia in the true sense of the term.”

Many cases have concluded with the dismissal of the guilty priest from the clerical state, Scicluna revealed. He said that many cases against older priests had been settled with a requirement that the priest remove himself from public ministry and spend his remaining days in prayer and penance. Such a requirement, he said, is tantamount to a guilty finding—“If a person is obliged to a life of silence and prayer, then there must be a reason.”


In a front-page headline story on March 25, the New York Times called attention to a sex-abuse case in which the Vatican allegedly failed to act promptly on a request to defrock a Wisconsin priest who was accused of molesting up to 200 boys at a school for the deaf. In an extraordinary public statement directly responding to the Times story, the Vatican pointed out that it had been unaware of the accusations against Father Lawrence Murphy until more than 20 years after they first arose in the Milwaukee archdiocese. But even that defense by the Vatican failed to expose the errors and distortions in the Times story.

The allegations of abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy began in 1955 and continued in 1974, according to the Times account. The Vatican was first notified in 1996—40 years after Church officials in Wisconsin were first made aware of the problem and after local law-enforcement officials were informed. The current leader of the Church in Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome Listecki, would eventually point out the implications:

Mistakes were made in the Lawrence Murphy case. The mistakes were not made in Rome in 1996, 1997, and 1998. The mistakes were made here, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, by the Church, by civil authorities, by Church officials, and by bishops.

Having finally called the Vatican’s attention to Murphy’s case in 1996, Archbishop Rembert Weakland apparently wanted immediate action, and was unhappy that the CDF took eight months to respond—even after the Milwaukee archdiocese had waited decades to take this action. But the canonical trial of Father Murphy proceeded, and was only suspended when it became clear that the accused priest was near death; he died in 1998.

Although the Times posted scores of documents on its website to back up the headline story about the Murphy case, none of the papers quoted then- Cardinal Ratzinger, and none showed any direct involvement by the prefect of the CDF in the case—still less any effort to cover up the evidence of Murphy’s misconduct. The cover-up had been done in Milwaukee, and it was in Milwaukee too that the canonical trial of Father Murphy was belatedly held. The CDF, the Vatican, and Pope Benedict could not reasonably be held responsible for the case.


Despite the absence of any firm evidence connecting the Pope to the problem, reporters continued to churn out speculative reports and opinion columns implying that Benedict XVI could now be considered guilty of involvement in a worldwide cover-up. But as the journalistic feeding frenzy persisted, more objective observers argued that the Pontiff was a major part of the solution to the sex-abuse scandal rather than part of the problem.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, for example, was willing to concede that in 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Ratzinger may not have been sufficiently alert to the dangers posed by an accused molester. But by 2001, when the CDF was given the authority to address the clerical abuse scandal, he had become a “real reformer,” determined to rid the Church of the moral taint caused by abusers and their enablers in the hierarchy.

Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn saw the emergence of the future Pontiff as the scourge of predatorpriests occurring well before 2001. It was Cardinal Ratzinger, he said, who pressed Pope John Paul II to conduct a full inquiry into charges against another Austrian prelate, the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër—resulting in Groër’s removal from his post as archbishop of Vienna.

Writing for the website of First Things, George Weigel observed that the harsh criticism of the Pontiff, led by the New York Times, failed to take into account the enormous strides that had been made during his pontificate in the Church’s handling of sex-abuse complaints. While the past record of the Catholic Church has certainly been subject to criticism, he said, in 2009 there were only six new complaints throughout the Church in the US. Weigel argued:

The Times’ descent into tabloid sourcing and innuendo was even more offensive because of recent hard news developments that underscore Pope Benedict’s determination to root out what he once described as the “filth” in the Church.

In a Vatican Radio interview Father Raymond de Souza, a columnist for Canada’s National Post, cited a “quiet revolution” in the handling of sex abuse complaints, which began when the CDF, under Cardinal Ratzinger, began hearing hundreds of cases from the US. Since 2001, Father de Souza reported, the CDF has handled about 3,000 cases: roughly a case every day. To date, approximately 80 percent of those cases have involved American priests.

With the outcropping of sex-abuse complaints all across Europe now making it clear that the sex-abuse scandal is not an exclusively American problem, the CDF—now under the leadership of an American prelate, Cardinal William Levada—will undoubtedly face a new influx of cases from the continent. The Vatican, under the leadership of Benedict XVI, is gearing up to address a problem that the bishops of the US, and now of Europe, have proven themselves unable to resolve.

In Easter Week, the Associated Press produced a prime example of a local bishop’s failure to discipline a predator priest, and of the misinterpretation of facts that has characterized recent media coverage of clergy sex abuse cases. A priest of the Oakland, California diocese, Father Stephen Kiesle, had applied for laicization in 1981. After complaints that Kiesle had molested boys—complaints that led to criminal charges and civil probation—Oakland’s Bishop John Cummins granted the priest a leave of absence from ministry, but then inexplicably allowed

Kiesle to resume volunteer work with young people. Kiesle’s plea for laicization was referred to the CDF, where Cardinal Ratzinger, in a 1985 letter that was the basis for the AP story, advised against a hasty decision. (Two years later Kiesle was indeed dismissed from the clerical state.) Quicker laicization would not have protected children; Cardinal Ratzinger did not have the power to put Kiesle behind bars. CDF approval was not needed to suspend Kiesle from ministry; Bishop Cummins had already done that.

In fact, the case that came before the CDF was not primarily about sexual abuse—an area for which the CDF did not have responsibility at that time— but a priest’s desire to be dispensed from his vows. The fact that the AP saw this story as evidence against Benedict XVI illustrated the ferocity of the media’s feeding frenzy.


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About Philip F. Lawler 15 Articles
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News and author of the Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, available now for pre-order.