Only a morally bankrupt Pope could call news of his role in a child abuse cover-up “petty gossip.
Pope Benedict XVI prays during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday on April 2, 2010 at Saint Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican.
Written by Andrew Sullivan for timesonline.co.uk
We know two things about Pope Benedict XVI this Easter that we didnt know last Easter. We know that he was implicated in covering up two cases of multiple child rapes and molestations, one in Germany and one in the United States. His record on this makes it hard to distinguish his career from that of many other bishops and cardinals who were indirectly but clearly guilty of ignoring or covering up their underlings violation of the bodies and souls of the young and the vulnerable.
The Vatican has spent Holy Week fighting back against those facts, but it cannot abolish or undo them. The German case is the most clear-cut because it was so glaring and so directly connected to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as the Pope was then known. The facts are these: a priest, Peter Hullermann, was found guilty of raping children in at least three families under Ratzingers authority in the late 1970s. The local priest indicated that the families would not file charges under the current circumstances, and the case went to Ratzinger, who decided not to report the priest to the criminal authorities, nor to strip him of his office, but to send him for therapy and retain him as an active priest, capable of molesting again. The priest subsequently raped many more children; he was found guilty in 1986 and was given a suspended sentence.
The Popes first defence was that he knew nothing about it and that his subordinate at the time, Gerhard Gruber, took full responsibility. We then discovered that the psychiatrist in the case had contacted Ratzingers office on several occasions, warning him of the danger the priest represented. I said, For Gods sake, he desperately has to be kept away from working with children, the psychiatrist told The New York Times.
We also discovered that the future pontiff was copied on a memo about the reasons for transferring the child-rapist for therapy, which also indicated that the priest would return to pastoral work almost immediately: ie, he would still be allowed to interact with children. In the dry words of The New York Times: Neither the Vatican nor the German archdiocese had previously mentioned in their statements that Cardinal Ratzinger was sent a memo relating to the reassignment of Father Hullermann. We also know Ratzinger chaired the meeting at which the therapy was decided upon.
The Pope has responded to the news by having surrogates disparage The New York Times and publicly referring to petty gossip in an apparent allusion to these new facts.
The US case is more complicated. It involved the abuse of 200 deaf boys by one Father Lawrence Murphy in Wisconsin. The rapes, molestations and abuse continued for decades, and the hierarchy refused to take action. Many of the children had been sent to the school because their parents couldnt cope; Murphy, according to reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, would come into their dorm at night, take them into a closet and molest them. [One victim, Arthur Budzinski,] said he told Archbishop William E Cousins and other officials about the abuse in 1974 when he was 26. The archbishop yelled at Budzinski, he said. He left the meeting crying.
By 1996 two decades later, with Murphys victims now at the 200 mark the case went to Rome. Because some of the abuse had happened within the confessional itself, Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), had responsibility. The bulk of the blame for this abuse lies with the local archbishops, who sat on the case for decades, but when it did come to Ratzingers attention in 1996, the CDF dragged its feet, did not defrock the priest and, as the priest neared his death, encouraged an end to a canonical trial.
In this case, Ratzinger could more credibly argue he was out of the loop. But you wonder: if you were responsible for handling the case of a priest who you knew had abused, raped and molested up to 200 deaf children for decades, would you not believe it was your business to resolve it swiftly? Would you be concerned, as the documents from the case reveal he was, about the risk of increasing scandal and the need for secrecy? Would you encourage the archbishop to drop the trial in view of the priests ailing health and imminent death?
I can only speak for myself a wayward Catholic sinner, a married homosexual who still clings to the truth of the Gospels and the sacredness of the church. I wouldnt do any of those things. Full stop. If I knew I had any role witting or unwitting in allowing children to be raped by someone I could have stopped, by someone over whom I had authority, I would not be able to sleep at night. I would be haunted for the rest of my life. The thought of covering up for someone who forced sex on deaf children in closets at night is incomprehensible to me. Allowing someone who had raped three children to go elsewhere and rape many more, when you were explicitly warned that this man was a walking danger to children? I dont want to sound self-righteous, but: no. Never. Under any circumstances; in any period of time; for whatever reason. Even if my failure were mere negligence, my conscience would be racked.
So, why, to ask the obvious question, isnt the Popes? Even criminals in prison treat child molesters as the lowest of the low, the darkest manifestation of human evil. How can the Pope have any moral authority on any subject until and unless he has explained this series of events, held himself accountable and repented, if not resigned? Instead he carries on as if nothing has changed, as if nothing in these revelations about his life really matters.
It has to matter. A pope with no moral authority simply cannot function as a pope. Yes, he has ecclesiastical power. But ecclesiastical power without moral authority merely exposes the hollowness of an unaccountable, self-perpetuating clerisy. Does he think we dont know? Does he understand that any parent of any child will be unable to imagine themselves in the same moral universe as this man?
He will not quit, of course. And he will not personally repent for these personal failings in public. This is all petty gossip fomented by enemies of the church. Its old news. He has reformed things. He has, in the words of the Vatican, nonresponsibility. Others will take the fall for those crimes of the past. And the broken souls and bodies that remain out there the scarred victims of this abuse of power where are they this Easter? What place do they have on this, our holiest day?
They will have to seek justice from the state and healing from God. If they retain the hope of Easter, that good can eventually outlast evil, that darkness can cede to light, I pray they can cling to the faith that is still ours in a church that is increasingly alien. Peter denied Jesus three times. But Easter still came.
That is what many of us still cling to, through the incomprehension and betrayal. We still have our faith even if we can no longer trust the hierarchy of our church. Its moral authority is over. Our moral struggle never ends until we find salvation in the God who loves children and doesnt rape them.
Andrew Sullivan is an author, academic and journalist. He holds a PhD from Harvard in political science, and is a former editor of The New Republic. His 1995 book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, became one of the best-selling books on gay rights. He has been a regular columnist for The Sunday Times since the 1990s, and also writes for Time and other publications.