John Allen vs. David von Drehle + Update from the Gulag

Couvent des Jacobins de Toulouse - Autel de St Thomas d'Aquin
Tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas, Toulouse, France

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.

Benedict Passion of Christ

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.

unbornThis 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.

That very same spring of 2010, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to the Church in Ireland, about the abuse crisis. I quoted that letter extensively, when Ireland voted to allow abortion.

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.

canon law codex canonici

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.

They added:

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.

Pope Benedict XVI–the Man Behind the Curtain

Card. Frings and Joseph Ratzinger

Our then-Archbishop, Theodore Card. McCarrick, participated in the April 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger pope.

I remember how elated I was. Ratzinger the pope! I asked the older priests I lived with at the time if we could share a bottle of champagne that evening before dinner.

We didn’t. They were neither pleased by the election, nor amused by my request.

champagneWe know now, of course, that McCarrick’s case was hanging fire in the Vatican in 2005. It had been hanging fire there for nearly a decade. The file already had multiple denunciations for sexual abuse in it.

We also now know that after Benedict took his seat in the Chair of Peter, McCarrick sent the new pope a gift of $200,000 cash.

A year later, in May 2006, McCarrick had reached the mandatory age of 75, and he retired as Archbishop of Washington. He began his new life as a full-time Cardinal diplomat, with no public declaration of any kind about his many ecclesiastical and civil crimes.

Fast forward fifteen years: An investigator working on the Vatican McCarrick report questions the now-retired Pope Benedict about McCarrick’s 2006 transition from Archbishop to globe-trotting Cardinal.

Benedict insists to the investigator that he had sent a “clear message of disapproval,” by secretly insisting on McC’s timely retirement as Archbishop, rather than allowing him two extra years in office.

Wait. “Clear message of disapproval?” Clear to whom?

Ratzinger Bergoglio and JPII
Pope John Paul II and Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio

Joseph Card. Ratzinger served as Archbishop of Munich, Germany, from 1977 to 1982. Then he became a Vatican official, then the pope.

Last week, a Munich law firm released a report they had prepared for the Archdiocese of Munich. The firm studied the archives of the archdiocese, from 1945 to 2019, in order to 1. identify criminal sex-abuser priests, and 2. consider how the archdiocese dealt with those priests’ cases.

The Munich report will benefit our Church tremendously in the long run. Like the French CIASE report, this report will help to facilitate a full encounter with the Catholic criminal-sex-abuse cover-up, one of the greater evils ever perpetuated by human beings.

The Munich report tackles the problem with a uniquely helpful approach: It assesses the decisions made by Church officials, measuring those decisions by the officials’ own rhetoric. That is: we as a Church stand with Christ on the side of the weak and suffering.

Ken Feinberg and Camille Biros
Camille Biros and Ken Feinberg

The Munich report is the total flip-side of our American “Reconciliation Programs” coin. Our own Reconciliation Program here in Richmond, like others done here in the US, involved an outside law firm studying the Church’s archives and identifying cases of sexual abuse. We paid out millions of dollars, just like the Archdiocese of Munich did.

But otherwise the two approaches to the problem are like photographic negatives of each other:

–In Munich, the lawyers gave the victim survivors’ the benefit of the doubt and doggedly cross-examined the Church officials. In our program, we did the opposite.

–In Munich they produced 1,900 pages of illuminating information for the general public. Here we produced 0 pages.

Benedict Francis kneeling

Friedrich Card. Wetter succeeded Ratzinger as Archbishop of Munich. He read the Munich law firm’s report over the course of the past few days. From the nursing home where Wetter lives, he made this statement:

I only became aware of the fatal consequences that abuse inflicts on children in 2010. I had not had a serious and thorough discussion up to that point. I didn’t deal with the perpetrators with the necessary severity. I have not lived up to my responsibility.

Indeed.

The Munich report covers the cases of dozens of criminal priests. The law firm, however, decided to single out one case for extra research. They came to regard this particular case as an emblematic instance of the long-term cover-up typically practiced by Church officials. The report calls it “Case 10.” It is the well-known case of Father Peter Hullermann.

I have referred to Father Hullermann here before. The German magazine Der Spiegel told his story back in 2010.

In 1979, as a young priest on a parish camp-out, Hullermann forced an 11-year-old boy to give him oral sex.

At that time, Hullermann belonged to the German diocese of Essen. The boy’s parents complained to the Church, and when diocesan officials confronted Hullermann, he admitted what he had done. He consulted with a psychotherapist in Essen, who referred him to another therapist, in Munich.

(No one, of course, told the police about the crime. Actually, I should say crimes, because Hullermann likely did the same thing on at least two other occasions between 1977 and 1979.)

Now, if you are a careful Vatican-news watcher, you know that our pope-emeritus made an official statement yesterday regarding a meeting in Munich that took place on January 15, 1980. He acknowledged yesterday that, ‘Yes, I actually did attend that particular meeting.’

Seems like a random thing to acknowledge, out of the blue. Certainly a 94-year-old retiree might have a hazy memory of events from half a lifetime ago. Maybe not such a big deal?

Anno Fidei inauguration Benedict XVI

Actually, it’s a very big deal. Here’s the context:

At the meeting in question, the Munich “Ordinariate”–that is the governing Church officers–agreed to accept Hullermann as a transfer from Essen.

The bishop of Essen didn’t just neglect to inform the police; he also did not fully inform the officials in Munich about Hullermann–at least not in writing. He had a statement from the victim’s parents, as well as the Essen psychologist’s report, but he did not send those documents to Munich.

The Essen bishop did, however, indicate in a letter to Munich that Hullerman posed a “danger.” That January 1980 letter sits in the Archdiocese of Munich’s files, marked as cc’d to the Archbishop.

Hullerman went on to abuse many more children during his decades of priestly service. A civil criminal court convicted him in 1986, but gave him a suspended sentence. The Munich Archdiocese kept him in ministry until 2010. (Hence Cardinal Wetter’s apology above.)

Last fall the Munich law firm working on the report repeatedly wrote to pope-emeritus Benedict, confronting him with the facts of Hullerman’s 1980 transfer from Essen to Munich.

They also confronted him with facts about Hullerman’s move a year later, from one Munich parish to another, after talk of sexual acts with children at his first Munich assignment.

And they confronted Benedict with questions about 2010. In that year, the priest who had served as Ratzinger’s right-hand man in 1980 took the full blame for the cover-up, when the Hullermann story hit the press.

Benedict claims to have no memory whatsoever of Hullermann. He claims he never saw the letter from Essen indicating a danger (even though it’s marked as received by his then-office.)

Now, again: one might sympathize with a 94-year-old retiree having to answer questions about a meeting that took place during the Carter administration. But this was no cold case.

As I mentioned, Der Spiegel covered the whole thing in 2010, as did other German periodicals, and the New York Times as well. The question of Benedict’s role in Hullermann’s career sat squarely on the Catholic-news front burner.

We can safely say this: Joseph Ratzinger’s reputation in  Germany rests on his involvement in the case of Father Peter Hullermann. And he knows it.

In a letter Benedict sent to the law firm in December, our pope-emeritus insisted: not only did he know nothing of Hullermann, he had not been present for the January 15, 1980 meeting at which Hullermann’s transfer to Munich was approved.

[NB. I have undertaken to translate pertinent sections of the Munich report into English. Not perfect, but serviceable. Click HERE to access the on-line files.]

But then Benedict faced a problem this month. The law firm has the minutes of the January 1980 meeting. Those minutes prove beyond any doubt both that 1. Benedict was present at the meeting and 2. he had personally spoken with the bishop of Essen about Hullermann, twice (at least).

In other words: Ratzinger, caught in a lie.

Back in 2019, Benedict published an essay about the sex-abuse crisis. He made a dishonest statement in that essay. He blamed the “Sexual Revolution of 1968” and its effect on children for the “extensive collapse of the next generation of priests.”

But..

1. This chronology is at least a decade off. In his essay, Benedict laments explicit sex-education in the 1970’s. But Hullermann and his contemporary priest-criminals were already adults by then.

2. The sexual revolution, for all its many faults, never led to the widespread acceptance of pedophilia. Some extreme libertines have argued for free sex between adults and minors, but Western society as a whole has always rejected this. Since the advent of Christianity, we have considered the sexual abuse of a child to be a damnable crime.

That is, all of us have thought that, except our bishops and popes.

The Munich report concludes that Ratzinger knew that Hullermann posed a danger, and did nothing about it. If this is true, Joseph Ratzinger owes a lot of people a personal apology, and whatever reparation he can muster.

Is the law firm wrong, and Benedict isn’t lying? He really knew nothing about one of his priests–a priest that all the other diocesan officials knew was a serial pederast?

That would actually probably be even worse. A shepherd that clueless actually became the freaking pope? Seriously?

The law firm takes no position on the question of whether or not the Vatican and the Munich chancery pressured the right-hand man from 1980 to take all the blame in 2010. There isn’t enough evidence to come to a conclusion about that.

But that lack of evidence has resulted from Benedict’s own recalcitrance. Here is our pope-emeritus’ repeated response to all of the law firm’s questions touching on anything that happened after the early days of 1982:

That question does not pertain my service as Archbishop of Munich, so it lies outside the scope of your inquiry.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchOur “transparent” Church.

I remain a committed conservative Catholic priest. I love the Catechism with Ratzinger’s imprimatur more than just about anything in the world.

But I was wrong when I wanted to drink champagne on the evening of April 19, 2005. I thought it was a happy day. It wasn’t.