Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CNN: "What the Pope Knew"

The other 4 parts on Youtube: #2 #3 #4 #5 (At least until they take them down for copyright infringement.) The documents discussed in the story can be found in their entirety here, (except for those pertaining to the German priest, Father Hullerman.)

And Catholic League's Bill Donohue takes issue with the report (thanks Christopher).

My take: I thought the CNN report was fair in many respects but did have a few failings. I fully understand the strident defense put forth by Mr. Donohue, after all the sex abuse scandal has perhaps irretrievably damaged the Roman Catholic Church's standing in the world (but probably not). Nothing short of accusing CNN of lacking journalistic integrity would do as pushback.

However, while no Catholic would want this story re-hashed, the CNN piece presents many sides in an even light. The blame for the sex abuse scandal is shared by lay and sectarian officials, the abusers were caught and for the most part punished. The questions handled in this report concern how then Cardinal Ratzinger handled the various cases before him , and was he at all culpable in delaying justice.

Nowhere does the reporter say that children were abused because of any obstruction by Ratzinger. Sure, the victims are pissed, and they are given voice to vent their frustration, but the Vatican also is given ample opportunity to present the alternate case-- and surprisingly, I think they do a good job. Ratzinger was the supervising Archbishop in the German priest case, and reporter Gary Tuchman says that it is unclear whether Ratzinger was made personally aware of the abuse at the time. The alleged perpetrator was transferred under orders of a subordinate to Ratzinger. The Vatican official states that Ratzinger, as Archbishop, had over 1000 priests under his supervision and these matters were often delegated. You can decide if this is appropriate.

The other cases had more to do with the de-frocking procedures (laicization) that involved known sex-abusing priests while Ratzinger was stationed in the Vatican as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Tuchman interviewed the prosecuting attorney for the Vatican as well as a plaintiff's attorney for the victims and other principals, and the story becomes more of an indictment of the Canon Law procedures under Pope John Paul II, but all sides are presented with adequate journalistic integrity. Ratzinger is characterized as someone trying to navigate the complex and hierarchical system, and having mixed success. The issue is clear, however, that the sex offenders were not near children at this point and CNN states this.

If I were a Catholic, the entire story would make me uneasy. Catholic relatives have said to me that they view priests differently, especially around their children, since these scandals have come to light. The final video recaps that Ratzinger has made significant reforms by streamlining Canon Law by instituting procedures that would push such cases up the hierarchy more quickly.

Oddly, one of Donohue's complaints is that CNN should have reported that one perpetrator, Father Keisle, married the mother of one of his illegitimate children while he was still technically a priest. Why is this germane to the story? Wouldn't this unnecessary report of blatant abuse by a priest, using his power over a female parishioner to father a child, just fuel more negative sentiment toward the Catholic Church? We already know these guys are criminals, why pile on all their malfeasance? Why would Donohue think this is important? Would this somehow exculpate Ratzinger or the Church? Yeah, not only do they let in pedophiles, they also let in lecherous womanizers, adulterers, and other deviant sexual offenders... Odd.

Also, Donohue takes issue with the reporting that Ratzinger prosecuted Father Reese for publishing opinions as an editor of American magazine that were in direct contradiction to the RCC's teachings regarding homosexuality and abortion. Donohue does not think this is pertinent, but I would argue that this vignette shows exactly how the hierarchy protects itself by squashing all dissent. There is nothing wrong with this and fully within the Church's purview, but Catholics-- and all of us-- should realize that this is how top-down monarchies function, and the Catholic Church is indeed a top-down monarchy which uses Canon Law, another way of saying Royal Decree, to protect itself. Nothing wrong with it, heck, if I were King I would do exactly the same thing: first thing to go would be all these superfluous blogs (except mine, of course.)

The CNN report honestly presented both sides. Sure, Donohue dislikes "[Ratzinger's biographer] Gibson's quip that the pope 'always took the stalling tactic' [which] suggests the pope acted irresponsibly. Now this may play well with those unfamiliar with the process of determining innocence or guilt, but anyone who knows better will find his accusation flatulent at best, and unfair at worst." But Tuchman followed up by interviewing Vatican officials who clarified that Ratzinger was bound by Canon Law at the time. Fair. (Although I do like Donohue's colloquial use of the word "flatulent", one I'll be sure to co-opt in the future.)

The take home lesson here is that any large organization will be unable to ensure the safety of your children, and pedophiles will relentlessly seek avenues by which to prey upon your kids. Be alert and responsible. Lay officials in Milwaukee were negligent when they dismissed the children's claims of abuse. Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, did what he could and now as Pope he has revised Canon Law. Might he become senile and unable to interdict on behalf of kids at some point? Sure. Might the Vatican's hierarchy fail its congregation again? You bet, but that's the chance you take when you're part of such a huge unweildy organization.

Might law enforcement officials unwisely defer to priests in the future? I hope not, but never underestimate the deference given to clergy. The real loss here is the trust that people have in their institutions-- both secular and sectarian.

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