Rod Dreher

Longtime readers know that I have a fascination with the relationship between power and authority in the age of the Internet, with its culture of near-total transparency, and instant global dissemination of information. Writing in one of the comboxes here over the weekend, the Catholic writer Lee Podles posed a startling question:

Have cardinals abused minors? Suppose one of them becomes pope? The papacy survived the pornocracy of the 9th century and the corruption of the Renaissance, but the internet would flash the news around the word if a pope was accused. Could the effectiveness of the papacy survive that?

Don’t think it couldn’t happen. John Paul named Hans Hermann Groer as Vienna’s archbishop, and elevated him to the cardinalate in 1988. Groer was forcibly retired after multiple abuse charges were leveled against him. His successor, Cardinal Schoenborn, later apologized for all the evil Groer had done. Of course, any member of the College of Cardinals could be elected pope, and while Catholics believe the Holy Spirit protects the teachings of the faith from contamination, history shows the Holy Spirit does not always protect the office of the papacy from evil men (Alexander VI Borgia being perhaps the worst example).
Well, we know what came after the misrule of the Borgia pope and five of his Renaissance confreres: the Reformation, a historical event made possible in part by the invention of the printing press as a medium of mass communication. Lee’s question makes one wonder what kind of danger the Catholic Church runs in the Internet age should the cardinals elect a pontiff with skeletons in his closet. Mind you, secular leaders can survive disclosure of morally compromising personal secrets (see Clinton, Bill), but the personal authority of a religious leader cannot, at least not in most circumstances. And there really aren’t any religious offices in the world like the papacy.
What’s more, in pre-modern times, ordinary people either would not have known about a pope’s corruption, or would have been powerless to offer anything more in response to it than a Gallic shrug. We don’t live in that age anymore. I am convinced that the 2002 clerical sexual abuse scandal had the effect it did because the Internet made it possible for Catholics and others all over the country to know what was going on in Boston and elsewhere, and they didn’t have to rely on secular newspapers or Catholic publications to discuss and debate the issues among themselves.
Anyway, to Lee’s question, it’s hard to imagine what the response would be to the revelation and publication on the Internet of solid information identifying a pope as an abuser … but the cardinals who go into the next papal conclave had better be thinking about it as they deliberate among themselves. The frightening thing for the Church is that a potential pope would accept the office knowing full well what he did, and what the consequences would be if found out. Cardinal Groer molested at least hundreds of boys over the years, and not only accepted elevation to the cardinalate, but had the audacity in 1995 to say that child molesters would go to hell. That hubris opened the floodgates against him. You can’t imagine someone so compromised saying something like that … but he did.
By the way, Podles reveals some important information he personally received from Cardinal Schoenborn about the way the Vatican under JP2 mishandled the pervert Cardinal Groer. In Lee’s account:

Schönborn said the situation was worse than I knew. Groër had molested almost every student he had come into contact with for decades. After Groër was accused of this abuse, John Paul II continued to receive Groër socially in the Vatican, and tens of thousands of Austrians were resigning from the Church in protest.
Schönborn in person pleaded with John Paul to make a statement about Groër. John Paul replied that he would like to, but “they won’t let me.”
“They”? I asked Schönborn. Who are “they” who can tell the pope what to do or not to do? Schönborn said that John Paul would not explain. I gathered from the context it must be part of the curia.

Lee goes on to speculate that Cardinal Ratzinger wanted to move against Groer, but that Groer was likely being protected by his superior, Cardinal Sodano, then the Vatican’s Secretary of State — and, by the way, also the alleged curial protector of the once-powerful but now disgraced Fater Maciel. Lee calls for Pope Benedict to set up an independent truth commission to sort this all out.

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