Six hundred fifty-three years ago yesterday, a solemn procession carried the bodily remains of St. Thomas Aquinas into the French city of Toulouse. They deposited his bones in the Dominican church there.
I will visit St. Thomas’ tomb and pray for you, dear reader. I leave shortly.
Before I depart, I present a consideration of various opinions about the Munch, Germany, sex-abuse report, which we discussed here on Wednesday…
The Vatican has published an official defense of our pope emeritus’ record. It insists that we must credit Pope Benedict for leading a “reform.” Yes, there was a bad period in the past, but that is now over, largely thanks to the pope-emeritus.
Some Catholics have even managed to convince themselves that the aged Benedict is suffering persecution for the true faith. An Italian Cardinal has called the charges against Ratzinger “absurd.” Cardinal Ruini insists that the pope-emeritus suffers not because of real wrongdoing, but because of his convictions.
But hold on. Did the Lord Jesus wear a crown of thorns because honest investigators asked Him about violent crimes, and He refused to give clear answers? Did He undergo His bitter Passion because He told the Pharisees He had not attended a meeting–a meeting He did in fact attend, as He later had to admit?
In the context of the Munich sex-abuse report, I find the pastiche image above–which some Catholics are circulating–to be genuinely offensive.
Joseph Ratzinger never suffered a sexual assault, as a child, by a priest. (At least not as far as we know.) The suffering Victim for our salvation does not identify Himself at this moment with career ecclesiastical bureaucrats.
No. The Lord comes to us with the tear-stained faces of of the survivors of sexual violence, men and women who struggle daily to survive.
At this moment, Pope-emeritus Benedict lives a perfectly secure life, protected from harm by both a legal and a physical wall. He has no one on earth to whom he must answer (except his own conscience, of course.)
Leaving aside the unacceptable foolishness of identifying Benedict with the suffering Christ, let’s do a more-serious comparison of points-of-view.
On his weekly podcast, long-time Vatican correspondent John Allen gave his own take on the pope-emeritus situation. Allen’s summary mirrors the official Vatican position.
On the other hand, David von Drehle has carefully followed the pope-emeritus’ statements about the abuse crisis, and he has published a trenchant essay about the situation as it stands now.
Here’s my summary of the point/counter-point:
I. On Wednesday, we briefly considered the question of Father Gerhard Gruber’s responsibility for the Munich pastoral assignments of the criminal pedophile Father Peter Hullermann. Gruber was Vicar General, or second in command, during Ratzinger’s tenure as Munich archbishop.
As we mentioned, the controversy over Gruber’s responsibility for Hullermann’s pastoral assignments arose during Benedict’s papacy. The German press made the decades-long Hullermann cover-up a matter of public knowledge in the spring of 2010.
In his analysis of the situation, John Allen takes it as settled that Gruber accepted full responsibility for assigning Hullermann, “leaving Ratzinger with esstentially clean hands. Ratzinger personally had nothing to do” with making a known pedophile a Munich parish priest. At least that’s Allen’s conclusion.
The record, however, is not as clear as Allen would have us think.
On April 8, 2010, Gruber wrote to the brother-priests of his community, some of whom had criticized the Munich Archdiocese press office. Regarding the official statement of the Church about him, Gruber wrote:
The expression ‘on his own authority,’ which was made public by the press officer, had not been discussed with me, and annoyed me deeply, because the ordinary reader may misunderstand it as a misuse of office instead of understanding it as ‘in the mandate of that office or position.’
This does not strike me as a clear acceptance of full responsibility. It certainly does not leave you with certainty that Gruber’s superior–Ratzinger–“personally had nothing to do with it,” as Allen put it.
Then add the evidence that the Munich law firm has published, which we covered in detail on Wednesday. That evidence makes it very difficult to conclude that Ratzinger did not know about the danger Hullermann posed.
This makes the 2010 affair look quite different. Gruber may very well have been a helpless pawn in a larger Church public relations maneuver, aimed at protecting Pope Benedict’s reputation.
But I feel like a fool for quoting Benedict’s letter so lovingly, because it looks like utter hypocrisy now. He took the Irish bishops to task for doing exactly what he himself had done when he served as a diocesan bishop.
If the full truth published in the Munich report had come to light that spring of 2010, it would have caused the complete collapse of the moral authority of the papacy in Europe. Which gives the Vatican and the Munich chancery a very likely motive for throwing Gruber under the bus then, to protect His Holiness.
Back to the point/counter-point. Allen concedes this much, regarding the recent Munich report…
I do think we have to say that when he was Cardinal Archbishop, with a diocese to run, [the pope-emeritus’] management suffered from the same deficiencies, the same holes, the same breakdowns, when it comes to the protection of children, as pretty much every other archbishop in the Catholic Church of that era. That remains a sad and distressing truth of the Catholic Church.
Von Drehle, on the other hand, puts this same truth a little more honestly:
Everyone with open eyes can now see that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church never underestimated the problem of priests as sexual predators. They weren’t taken by surprise. Church leaders have known for decades exactly how vast the issue was, how all-consuming, from the humble parish all the way to the top in Rome…
It is a sadly familiar story: secret conclaves of men in collars, flouting the laws of one nation after another to shuffle the abusers and launder their crimes…
The church knew about the abuse of children — as it was happening. Church leaders knew which priests were guilty and knew that abusers were a threat to abuse again. Covering up these crimes was no impediment to advancing in the hierarchy. Compromised bishops became archbishops. Compromised archbishops were crowned as cardinals. And Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope.
II. The nub of the controversy, I think, has to do with the pope-emeritus’ record since the supposed “bad old days.”
Allen articulates his understanding–which mirrors the Vatican line–like this:
Remember Pope Benedict’s track record on sexual abuse. The reform began, in most ways, under Pope Benedict. The legal changes, and the practice of swift laicization of abuser priests–weeding abusers out of the priesthood–began under Benedict. So aggressive did it become that, during one year alone during his eight-year papacy, almost 400 abuser priests were laicized.
From Pope Francis on down, everyone involved in the reform will acknowledge that it began and gathered steam under Pope Benedict. Given all that, there is no basis to conclude that Pope Benedict was ever a willing co-conspirator in the cover-up of child sexual abuse.
Glittering assertions, to be sure. But I for one will not accept them without some independent verification of their veracity.
No clergy sex-abuse survivor I know has any sense of any “reform” having happened.
And how do we know anything about Benedict “weeding abusers out of the priesthood?” All those records are secret. The Munich law firm asked the pope-emeritus about the laicization procedures of the criminal cases it studied. Benedict refused to answer those questions. (Just like the Vatican refused to answer questions from an Irish study commission in 2010.)
Even if you concede Allen’s assertion here, though, von Drehle makes an observation about this line of defense:
Defenders of the indefensible argue that Ratzinger was tougher on abusive priests than his predecessors, both in his service as head of the Curia department responsible for discipline in Rome and as pope from 2005 to 2013. But this misses important context. Ratzinger’s long reign over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith coincided with the gradual unraveling of church secrecy. He had no choice to take more action than the passive prelates who came before. The walls were caving in.
Indeed. If American journalists like Jason Berry and the Spotlight team had not uncovered some of the secrets, would the supposed Church “reform” have happened at all?
What we have learned these past four years strongly suggests that it would not have.
The pattern repeats itself over and over again. The hierarchy keeps everything secret. If the press gets hold of something, promise new policies to control the p.r. damage. Then proceed to ignore those policies.
I received a letter from my bishop, Barry Knestout, earlier this week. He informed me that he has “suspended” his pursuit of charges against me for 1. disobedience and 2. inciting hatred against the hierarchy.
I take this as good news, and continue to pray for better days to come. Now that the process is no longer an active legal matter, let me inform you of what happened.
At the indictment that took place on October 29, 2021, Bishop Knestout and his judicial vicar told me the following:
1. One person caused the diocese to receive a lot of criticism. Namely, me.
When Bishop Knestout publicly defamed me in a homily and in the Martinsville newspaper; when he removed me as pastor; when he suspended my priestly faculties indefinitely for blog posts he didn’t like; when he received scores of letters begging him to reconsider his hasty actions–one man deserves the blame for all of that. Me.
And it’s up to me to repair the damage.
2. My entire two-decade priestly career has been marked by a profound psychological instability. I have reacted wrongly to difficult circumstances over and over again. I have divided the faithful by speaking openly about secret matters.
And this interior malady of mine must be cured before I could ever receive another assignment.
For my part, at the indictment, I made a brief declaration of my innocence of the charges made against me. I apologized again for my mistakes and for reacting intemperately sometimes in 2018 and 2019. I promised to reconsider my blog posts of that period, taking them out of circulation in the meantime, as I mentioned here in early November.
I remain hopeful. I love the Church and the priesthood, even while continuing to dwell here in the ecclesiastical gulag.
But von Drehle gives us a good reality check. It’s not just me saying it. Von Drehle concludes his assessment of the situation as it stands now like this:
Catholic schools provide some of the world’s best education. Catholic hospitals care for the sick. Catholic charities feed and clothe the hungry and cold. All these good works are done, increasingly, by lay leaders — not by priests. (Though there are certainly some very good men in the priesthood.)
Enlightened lay Catholics increasingly understand that looking to a priest, or a bishop, or even a pope for guidance and moral example has been a dangerous mistake. Generations of those men have brought the church to its greatest crisis in some 500 years — and they cannot solve the problem of credibility and accountability for one simple reason.
They are the problem.