Rod Dreher

A reader forwards this LA Times column by Tim Rutten, who wonders what prominent American Catholics who had publicly defended the Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel from abuse charges will do now that the late Maciel has been revealed to have been a serial molester and a massive fraud? (By the way, not that it will do him much good in the court of public opinion these days, but it was Cardinal Ratzinger who ordered the Vatican move against the powerful Maciel when the priest’s purported protector, Pope John Paul II, was in his final months.) From Rutten’s column:

What’s interesting about all of this is that a list of Maciel’s most vociferous defenders reads like a who’s who of the conservative Catholic intellectuals who, in recent years, have insisted that Catholicism and membership in the Democratic Party are all but incompatible. Among Maciel’s defenders have been the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose journal, First Things, is a bible for conservative Catholics; William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who refused to accept an award from Notre Dame because it invited President Obama to speak at its commencement; former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, now a talk-show host and commentator; and Deal Hudson, President George W. Bush’s Catholic liaison.
In fact, when the Vatican ordered Maciel into retirement, Neuhaus — who earlier had written that he knew the man’s innocence as “a moral certainty” — told the New York Times: “It wouldn’t be the first time that an innocent and indeed holy person was unfairly treated by church authority.”
Do Bennett, Glendon, Donohue and Hudson still agree with Neuhaus? The resolution of the Legionaries of Christ case will be a test not only for Benedict but also for those conservative American intellectuals who have yet to explain how they came to give such unstinting support to a malevolent sexual predator.

Well, one way to deal with the Maciel debacle is to remove Father Neuhaus’s retrospectively embarrassing March 2002 exoneration of Maciel and attack on his accusers from the First Things online archive, as appears to have happened (try searching for it, or using the old URL for the article, via, and you get nothing). But I don’t think that’s the way to go. You don’t deal with a problematic past by denying it, by airbrushing facts and persons out of the historical record — if, in fact, that’s what has happened here. Perhaps it was an oversight, though I am inclined to doubt that, because in the past I’ve read that essay on FT’s online archive before.
(UPDATE: FT’s web editor Joe Carter tells me that the old link doesn’t work because FT changed web servers. He provides a new link here, and says I should have been able to find that article using the search engine on the FT site, and the term “maciel.” I tried several times using “neuhaus” and “maciel,” but it never came up. [Nor, as Joe subsequently e-mailed, did it do so for him when he used those search terms; as someone who worked for a newspaper whose website’s search engine was legendarily horrible, I sympathize.]Anyway, Joe says he’s surprised that I would imply that they would try to bury something from their site, and that’s something that FT “would never, ever do.” I’m pleased to hear that, thank him for his response, and apologize for being wrong.)
I suspect the answer is the same it was for me, and for anyone of any religion who has defended figures who turned out to have been indefensible: you couldn’t imagine the accusations were true. Let me underscore here that I’m not making a Catholic point, or even a religious point; I’m making one about the fallibility of human judgment. We place our confidence in people who let us down, sometimes spectacularly. It’s fatally easy to assume that because somebody is on “our” team, and attracts the ire of people on the “other” team, that they are under attack because the Others hate Us. Neuhaus, in his now-disappeared piece (available here), attacked reporters and Legion critics Jason Berry and the late Gerry Renner — who were, we now know, correct in their reporting — as being driven by envy and malice towards things conservative Catholics approve of. Neuhaus wrote, “Nobody would dispute that Legionaries are theologically orthodox and loyal to the Pope. Some of us take the perhaps eccentric view that that is a virtue.”
I don’t bring this up to crack on the late Father Neuhaus. I have been guilty of the same thing, in both politics and religion: thoughtlessly taking the side of my team, and attributing criticism of us to bad faith or malicious motive. Again, this is something that all of us can do — I have mentioned before a conversation with a liberal Catholic journalist who lamented privately the aspects of the abuse scandal that his side refused to see because it undermined their ideological position. In politics, we have seen the same kind of thing from defenders of recent presidents both liberal and conservative. It’s especially easy to do so in an ideological age like our own, in which admitting error, or even conceding that one’s opponents have a good point, is seen as despicable weakness. There is a risk in admitting error; you actually do open yourself up to attack from your enemies. But what else can you do and still maintain your integrity, and your credibility? I have a lot more respect for a man who admits he’s wrong, and who sincerely tries to learn from his mistake, than I do for someone who guts it out on the grounds that you can’t concede an inch to the bastards.
Think of the leftist intellectuals of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s who could not plausibly deny the evil of Soviet communism, but who would not publicly admit it because to do so would give aid and comfort to those on the Wrong Side of History, and would bolster the case of the Wrong Sort of People. So they gutted it out. Have their reputations done well in retrospect? History has a way of humiliating the prideful.
Can anybody think of exemplary admissions of error from public figures? A man or a woman who had staked out a strong position on a public issue of great moral import, and then admitted with admirable candor that he or she had been on the wrong side? Please give examples in the combox, and suggest what the rest of us can learn about humility from their example.
UPDATE: Here’s a powerful example: Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna.

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