Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

The Pope and the Times

Notwithstanding Michael Sean Winters at
, R.R. Reno at
First Thoughts
, Rod Dreher at
, and Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at GetReligion, the big
by Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger in last
Friday’s NYT is no hatchet job. It is, by my lights, a piece of
balanced, well contextualized reporting that added some essential
insider commentary and a couple of very important evidentiary pieces to
the jigsaw puzzle being put together to show how the Vatican has handled
the sexual abuse scandals of the past quarter-century.


begin by stipulating that with the scandals having come home to roost in
Rome, it is essential journalistic business to get the best possible
fix on the record of Pope Benedict, going back to the days when as Joseph
Ratzinger he was archbishop of Munich and, especially, Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Here’s what the
current archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, Philip Edward Wilson, had to
say to Goodstein and Halbfinger about how the Vatican dealt with sexual
abuse issues on Ratzinger’s watch: “There was confusion everywhere.”

core question raised by the article is posed by Geoffrey Robinson, a
retired auxiliary bishop from Sydney:


“Why did the
Vatican end up so far behind the bishops out on the front
line, who with all their faults, did change — they did develop,” he
said. “Why was the Vatican so many years behind?”

answer, according to the Times:

Supporters say
that Cardinal Ratzinger would have preferred to take
steps earlier to stanch the damage in certain cases.

But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of
nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright
obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it
was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the
1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after
country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume
his own papacy.


Do the critics claim otherwise? No
they don’t. The most they can manage is to suggest that Ratzinger was
faced with a difficult situation, that he was the best of a bad lot, and
that given John Paul II’s resistance, he did the best he could. Maybe
so, but the most detailed example of his handling of a case we
have–that of the child-abusing Oakland priest Stephen Kiesle–indicates
otherwise. That’s my
based on a close reading of documents from the case
file. The Times article does not discuss, but does allude to,
Ratzinger’s performance in the Kiesle case. The evidence is that the
case was moving along with all deliberate speed until Ratzinger took
charge of the CDF. Then it slowed to a crawl.


Much of the
confusion over the handling of sexual abuse cases in the Vatican during
the 1980s and 1990s resulted from uncertainty throughout the hierarchy
over which office had responsibility, what the extent of that
responsibility was, and what to do about the 5-year statute of
limitations enunciated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Times
revelation that the supposedly new regime put in place by Ratzinger in
2001 was in fact little more than a reassertion of norms set forth in a
document quietly promulgated in 1922 and reiterated in 1962 is highly
significant. It is now evident that the CDF all along had responsibility
for all sexual abuse cases and that there was no statute of


Were Ratzinger and his staff aware of this? And if
they were, why didn’t they so inform the bishops, some of whom were
desperately looking to the Vatican to take charge of the situation, and
to extend what they thought was a woefully short statute of limitations?
Over on dotCommonweal, canon lawyer Nicholas P. Cafardi (emeritus dean
of the Duquesne Law School) expands on what he told the Times,
kicking off a fascinating discussion of
how best to understand the failure of the CDF to take the situation in
hand. Cafardi is prepared to cut Ratzinger some slack in this regard. As
a theologian rather than a canon lawyer, the cardinal was dependent on
others to tell him what was what. Archbishop Wilson told the Times that
he had raised the issue of the 1922 document with the CDF in late
1990s. Did the staff he talked to keep their boss in the dark until
Wilson brought up the matter at a hitherto unreported meeting of bishops
from English-speaking countries in 2000? 


The critics beat up
the Times for pointing out that, under Ratzinger, the CDF was
devoting itself to such matters as cracking down on liberation
theologians, sorting out marriage annulments, and determining the
legitimacy of apparitions of the the Virgin Mary. This, they say, is
unwarranted editorializing. But surely it’s important to know what else
the CDF had on its plate, and what Ratzinger’s priorities were. Isn’t
this the kind of context the lack of which media criticism is always

Would it have made a difference if the CDF had gotten its act together,
as Goodstein and Halbfinger allege? The answer is yes. Sure, much of the
actual abuse uncovered over the past couple of decades had already
taken place by the time Ratzinger took over the CDF. But much of the
covering up by bishops had not. Had the Vatican clearly and publicly
issued the norms that were already in place, and enunciated new
ones mandating open dealing and a reporting of charges to the civil
authorities, and been willing to discipline bishops who did the covering
up, the crisis of the past decade would have been substantially


Thanks in no small measure to the investigative
efforts of the Times in recent months, a portrait is emerging of
Pope Benedict as someone who (in contrast to others in the Vatican)
grasped the seriousness of child sexual abuse and was prepared to bring
the hammer down on abusers, up to and including the monstrous Marcial
Maciel Degollado. But from his days running the CDF to his papacy, he
has not been willing to challenge the curial system and its determined
commitment to circling the wagons. Indeed, when push comes to shove, and
he perceives that it is threatened, his reaction is to jump into the
arms of the likes of Cardinal Sodano, who epitomizes all that is wrong
with that system. 

Comments read comments(9)
post a comment
Sister Maureen Paul Turlish

posted July 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

Very well said Mark Silk.
Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims’ Advocate
New Castle, Delaware
Professor Marci Hamilton and Sister Maureen Paul Turlish on NPR’s Radio Times on WHYY in Philadelphia, April 12, 2010

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posted July 6, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Any Christian does NOT NEED “canon laws” to know what is right and what is wrong. These people are so INDOCTRONATED by the “generational brainwashing” they’ve received, that they can’t see any thing in the LIGHT OF WHAT CHRIST WOULD SAY BIBLICALLY. But only what their evil church would ask of them, that’s what they use.
Christ Jesus does tell us in “HIS WORD” the right things to do and recieve the fruits of the Spirit.
He also tells us what grieves the SPIRIT.

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posted July 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Major premise:
The Vatican was well aware of sexual abuse committed by some members of all ranks of the clergy.
Minor premises:
But, the Vatican could not admit to this because to do so would damage the image of the Vatican a/k/a Church.
Ergo, produce a CYA (Cover Your Ass) memo that would affirm the major premise, but preserve the integrity of the Vatican’s a/k/a church’s image.
The CYA memo was “Cremin,” an acknowledgment of crime committed by certain clergy. The concealment of “Crimen.” fulfilled the requirements of the minor premise. Under this Machiavellian reasoning, the Vatican could never be accused of not knowing or not taking action about the abuse, because, according to its reasoning, it in fact had.
(The subtlety of this explication might well escape those trained in government schools, but to those educated in scholastic logic; it meets all the conditions of a well orchestrated syllogism needed to justify a dubious action.)

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Gabe Azzaro

posted July 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Very well-written, accurate, informative article. Unfortunately too many Catholics are not willing to admit that the pope – and even Pope John Paul II – have chosen not to protect innocent children and vulnerable adults, but would rather protect the reputation and coffers of the Catholic church. Truly everyone knows that sexual molestation is not only a sin, but a crime. for which the criminal – priest, bishop or pope – have to accept responsibility and the consequences. Until the pope stops apologizing with words only and begins to follow up with action, the crimes will continue and more souls will be murdered.

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John Mack

posted July 6, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Empires, including ecclesiastic empires, cannot accept defeat. Instead they prefer to deny, then forget. We cannot allow them to get away with crimes against humanity. The cover-up amounted to a crime against humanity.
The Vatican monarchy, with its ineffective good and dominating evil princes, and fawning careerists, is a sad and weird thing.

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posted July 8, 2010 at 5:22 am

Gee it seems like some people just refuse to give any credit at all to Pope Benedict.
I suppose for some reasons they just can not afford to give any.

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posted July 9, 2010 at 11:43 am

I think it is easy for us all to throw stones at the Vatican and the curia about what they should have known and should have done. I don’t think it is quite that easy. There seems to be an underlying assumption of power and control. The picture of the sex abuse crisis is showing us that the Vatican isn’t the power or control mechanism that historians and dissenters paint. The central image that is emerging is that the Pope isn’t like a CEO or a President. He’s more like the College President presiding over a tenured faculty in which the Department Chairs and Deans have a lot of autonomy. Instead of power and control, the issue that needs to be examined is authority – what is authority, who has it and how is it exercised. A much more complex picture emerges in this alternate paradigm and so, because this question really goes unexamined by the New York Times – the truth is really bypassed and that’s why some of us feel the New York Times is Anti-catholic and everything it writes is a hatchet job even when it has elements of truth in it. Yesterdays editorial continues its line of skewed thinking – as if the Church should be American in its thinking. Everytime it writes something, the Times underscores how not only don’t they get what the Church really is. Until someone convinces me otherwise, I don’t trust any of what they have to say about not only the Church but the rest of the News they prints.

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Omaha Steve

posted July 26, 2010 at 4:30 pm

The NYT Times and apparently Mark Silk clearly have an agenda against the Catholic Church. The below article from Michael Gerson of the Washington Post is far more responsible in its’ reaction to the horrible crimes committed by a small percentage (4%) of the clergy.
“By any human standard, Pope Benedict XVI and the American Catholic Church are getting a bad rap in the current outbreak of outrage over clerical sexual abuse.
Far from being indifferent or complicit, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among the first in Rome to take the scandal seriously. During much of his service as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future pope had no responsibility for investigating most cases of sexual abuse. Local bishops were in charge — and some failed spectacularly in their moral duties.
It was not until 2001 that Pope John Paul II charged Ratzinger with reviewing every credible case of sexual abuse. While poring through these documents, Ratzinger’s eyes were opened.
The church became more active in removing abusive priests — whom Ratzinger described rightly as “filth” — both through canonical trials and administrative action.
“Like many other bishops at the beginning, he (Benedict) didn’t understand it,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese of Georgetown University. “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.”
And the American Catholic Church — once in destructive denial — has confronted the problem directly. It is difficult to contend that justice was done in the cases of some prominent offenders and the bishops who protected and reassigned them. But it’s also difficult to deny that the church has made progress with a zero-tolerance policy. The vast majority of abuse cases took place decades ago. In 2009, six credible allegations of abuse concerning people who are currently minors were reported to the U.S. bishops — in a church with 65 million members.
Some will allow none of these facts to get in the way of a good clerical scandal. Some editorial cartoonists engage in gleeful anti-clericalism.
The implicit charge is that the Catholic Church is somehow discredited by the existence of human depravity — a doctrine it has taught for more than two millennia.
Most of the current accusations, as I said, are not fair by human standards. But the Christian church, in its varied expressions, is not merely accountable to human standards because it is supposed to be more than a human institution.
Apart from the mental, emotional and spiritual harm done to children, this has been the most disturbing aspect of the initial Catholic reaction to the abuse scandal over the past few decades: the reduction of the church to one more self-interested organization. In case after case, church leaders have attempted (and failed) to protect the church from scandal.
From one perspective, this is understandable. A church exists in a real world of donor relations and legal exposure. But the normal process of crisis management can involve a theological error — often repeated in the history of the religion.
It is the consistent temptation of faith leaders — Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Hindu — to practice the religion of the tribe. The goal is to seek the public recognition of their own theological convictions and the health of their own religious institutions.
For many centuries of Western history, the Christian church vied and jostled for influence along with other interests, pursuing a tribal agenda at the expense of Jews, heretics, “infidels” and ambitious princes. The mind-set can still be detected, in milder forms, whenever Christian leaders talk of “taking back America for Christ” or pay hush money to avoid scandal for the church. The tribe must be defended.
But the tribe’s religion is inherently exclusive, sorting “us” from “them.” So it undermines a foundational teaching of Christianity — a radical human equality in need and in grace.
The story of modern Christian history has been the partial, hopeful movement away from the religion of the tribe and toward a religion of humanity — a theology that defends a universal ideal of human rights and dignity, whose triumph benefits everyone.
And the Catholic Church has led this transition. Once a reactionary opponent of individualism and modernity, it is now one of the leading global advocates for universal human rights and dignity.
The Catholic Church’s initial reaction to the abuse scandal was often indefensible. Now, through its honesty and transparency, it can demonstrate a commitment to universal dignity — which includes every victim of abuse.”

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posted December 10, 2010 at 8:51 am

I just read the original blog article by Rod Dreher
and most of the comments in response.
It is amazing, AMAZING to see the conservative
mentality at work. Dreher’s article was bad
enough but the response was enough to
to make me sick to my stomach. The references
to the NCR’s Renner and Berry as lefty socialists
with an agenda to get the Church and Pope.
I am not a socialist or a Marxist but have
enlisted in both by default by virtue of my position.
I guess I’m a lost, easily misled lamb of the left.
I have watch the above operate for generations and
the rhetoric never changes. They and the Legion under
Marcial Maciel are what happens in any closed off
ghetto of the mind. I used to think their Evangelical
counterparts were living in a bubble. I need to thank
the crunchy con Dreher, not for his pathetic
blog post, but for putting on exhibition Maciel’s
fellow cretins who defended him until forced to capitulate
and who control the Church and everything else now that
the secular midterm results are in.
I have to admire Dreher’s tenacity in being faithful
to his one “true” faith of last resort, conservatism.

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