A Strange Attack from the New York Times

Since at least last March, the New York Times has been obsessed with a question: “What did Joseph Ratzinger know, and when did he know it?” At issue, of course, is the role played by Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — in relation to the scandal of clergy sex abuse.

It’s a fair question. Probably the Times has spent too much time on it while straining to place a negative interpretation on the facts. But the question undoubtedly is an acceptable one for a newspaper — and for the rest of us, too — to ask.

The latest Times story in this line, published July 2, concerns the years from 1981, when Cardinal Ratzinger became prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Faith, until 2005, when he was elected pope. The headline is unspeakably bad because grossly untrue (“Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal”), but the text that follows is a mixed bag.

Closely read, the picture that emerges is that Cardinal Ratzinger did a good-to-excellent job on the abuse issue as CDF head. The Times‘ own overall conclusion — he didn’t do everything that, ideally, he might — comes across as a stretch. So does a follow-up editorial a week later that strains to make the same point.

Here I must admit to a personal interest in this particular journalistic exercise. In a conversation (not an interview) several weeks ago with one of the Times’ writers whose bylines appear on the story, I said something like this:

“As far as I can see, Ratzinger was one of the first people at his level in the Curia — perhaps the first — to understand how serious this whole problem was and really try to grapple with it.

“Remember, he didn’t have an entirely free hand, he faced obstacles and opposition within the Vatican. But given what was possible, he did very well.”

A great deal of the Times story sounds like a reply to that.

It’s a bizarre piece of writing, full of helpful information that leads the reader to think well of Cardinal Ratzinger along with obtuse comments by the writers that conflict with the facts they report. They choose to describe Ratzinger as part of a closed, self-referential culture at the Vatican; but unwittingly what they’ve written reflects a closed, self-referential culture at The New York Times, with limited understanding combining with a hypercritical view of the Catholic Church.

The story makes much of the disclosure that the CDF (or, more properly, its predecessor, the Holy Office) was “given authority over sexual abuse cases” by a papal mandate in 1922. That is 79 years before Pope John Paul II specifically placed CDF in charge of the issue. This 1922 mandate is said to have been reaffirmed in 1962.

The implication is that Cardinal Ratzinger had jurisdiction over this matter from the time he arrived at CDF in 1981 and didn’t have to wait for new papal instructions in order to take charge of the issue.

In no way, however, is this persuasive. As the story itself makes clear, by the 1980s and 1990s the mandate of 1922/1962 had long been forgotten by just about everyone in Rome. Even to the few who were aware of it, it was far from clear that it was still in force.

Obviously that applies to John Paul II, who in 2001 deemed it necessary specifically to assign the issue to Ratzinger’s congregation, and to Cardinal Ratzinger, who was closely and actively involved in causing the pope to do that. It’s inconceivable that either man would have felt a need to act as he did in 2001 if he believed CDF at that time already had clear authority as the Holy See’s lead agent on clerical sex abuse.

 

To its credit, nonetheless, the Times story makes a number of important points. For instance: that bishops in years past had “a variety of disciplinary tools at their disposal” for dealing with abuse, without having to refer to the Vatican; that there nevertheless was “a bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal process” on this issue in Rome throughout the 1980s and 1990s; that the staff of the doctrinal congregation, numbering a modest three dozen, had many things besides sex abuse to worry about in those years; and that, at a hitherto unreported 2000 meeting between Vatican officials and worried bishops from several English-speaking countries, Cardinal Ratzinger stood out for his understanding and passionate concern.

“I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward,” the Times quotes an Australian bishop. The comment is similar to a remark by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference at the time the scandal of sex abuse and cover-up erupted in 2002, who says that in his many meetings with Cardinal Ratzinger he found him “extraordinarily supportive” of the Americans’ steps to take corrective action.

One can readily agree that confusion at the Vatican and among bishops in the field helped worsen this tragedy. And it is dismaying to read even now in the Times that Vatican officials “declined to answer detailed questions” about the record of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Detailed answers to detailed questions were and are precisely what have long been needed to settle at least one aspect of this whole ugly business once and for all.

Even as it stands, however, and taking due account of its journalistic failings, the latest venture by the New York Times into this thicket contains ample information to show that Benedict XVI should be praised, not blamed, for his handling of the abuse crisis during his CDF years. Too bad the Times doesn’t understand what it found out.

Russell Shaw

By

Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • jack

    it is true that a priest is called to sanctify the people. but it is also true that the people sanctify the priest. if the faithful are secularized beyond the boundaries, and if the entire culture is hostile and tempting, then a time will come there will dearth of priest. therefore the holiness of the faithful is greatly desired. A good family makes a good child. Let the faith dictate the life style, not secularism.
    Catholic Church has given too much freedom to women. they continue the work of Eve quite well.

  • Austin

    Maciel enjoyed the protection of Sodano and even JP II. Then Cardinal Ratzinger however, was not bought and paid for like Sodano and went after Maciel. Cardinal Ratzinger appeared to be the only member of the Curia who took this sexual abuse mess seriously, and for this he should be commended.

  • John

    One of the curious things about Americans and the American media is their fixation on the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. You would almost believe that Americans and their cultural leaders really are for protecting the children. But try to put this into perspective.

    1. Bill Clinton a very popular and admired American had had at least three charges of sexual assault alleged against him and one was confirmed. The New York Times continues to celebrate this sex abuser as the greatest man on the planet.

    2. Michael Jackson was indicted twice for sexual abuse of young boys and indeed admitting to sharing his bed with young boys. When he died the Americans went crazy pouring out praise upon praise on this pervert. He is listed as a great American icon.

    3. Roman Polanski a much praised and admired American movie director was convicted of raping a thirteen year old girl. Today he is lionized in America and sympathy for hims is widespread. Even one of the talking heads of American TV stated that the rape of the young girl was “not really a rape”

    4. Last year in the state of Florida 375 teachers lost their teaching licenses because of allegations of sexual abuse; considering how long it takes to remove a teacher’s license which is always defended to the death by the unions it indicates a much larger number.

    5. Disney Inc continues to exploit young girls around the ages of ten and elevent and prep them to become young sex vamps and sluts. Eventually they head for lives of breakdowns a la Spears and Lohan

    6. The Late much lamented American political power house Ted Kennedy was responsible for the death of a young woman with whom he as alleged to have had a sexual relationship. He also was present when his nephew was alleged to have raped a woman in the confines of the Kennedy mansion in Florida.

    The point is when the American culture suddenly because a crusader for the innocence of children something is hiding underneat this pronounced concern. The truth is that as unseemly and disgusting the sex abuse cases among ordained priests is; the New York Times is more interested in good old fashioned American as apple pie anti Catholicism whose end game is the tarring and feathering of a truly great man Benedict XVI.

  • Patricia

    Complaint: why did you erase my comments when i submitted–can’t you give my hard work back, along with your complaint that i did not delete, which i did do. if i did it wrong, please say what is wrong, but give me back my work, which was hard to do! This time I am deleting “REQUIRED:” as well as “Delete this Text!” which I did delete, just not “required:” which would not be the English meaning of your request, to see if that works—you really should say so, if that is the case, especially if you are going to delete all my work while saying I didn’t delete, with no chance to correct my mistake and resubmit. is that some kind joke on me?? My comment was very good, but too hard to do again

  • Administrator

    Complaint: why did you erase my comments when i submitted–can’t you give my hard work back, along with your complaint that i did not delete, which i did do. if i did it wrong, please say what is wrong, but give me back my work, which was hard to do! This time I am deleting “REQUIRED:” as well as “Delete this Text!” which I did delete, just not “required:” which would not be the English meaning of your request, to see if that works—you really should say so, if that is the case, especially if you are going to delete all my work while saying I didn’t delete, with no chance to correct my mistake and resubmit. is that some kind joke on me?? My comment was very good, but too hard to do again

    Hi Patricia,

    We didn’t remove anything you posted. If you didn’t delete the text below before submitting, your comment won’t show. That’s the way the security program works, and it has nothing to do with us.

    Our instructions — “REQUIRED: Delete this text,” followed by a sentence directly below it that says “Please delete the sentence above BEFORE you press ‘Submit'” — are as clear as they can possibly be in English. I’m sorry, but you’re the first person in 2 1/2 years to complain that it’s somehow confusing.

  • Randy

    Dear Administrator,

    Although Patricia may be the first poster to complain in 2.5 years, she is not the first one to experience the unwitting deletion of difficult to reproduce post. It has happended to yours truly. Is that requirement for posting really necessary? If the post is reviewed and edited prior to its official posting on the website, then why is the SPAM prevention step needed? Can’t an editor tell SPAM from a legitimate post? Thanks for you time.

    RH

  • georgie-ann

    i hate to inform you, but as a new user to this system, i also found very much to be confusing about it, made lots of mistakes, and lost lots of work,…i definitely did complain about not being able to retrieve the work, and i still absolutely hate it when for some reason or other a glitch happens and good work goes down the drain,…I WISH YOU COULD FIX THAT ASPECT OF YOUR SECURITY SYSTEM, SO THAT WE HAVE THE OPTION OF CORRECTING OUR GOOFS,…

    meanwhile, i was also given the good advice, which i sometimes can remember to follow, to make a copy (as in “copy and paste,” the blue highlighting-thing), so that if need be, i can bring it all back,…especially if i have written anything lengthy, i do try to do that BEFORE trying to “submit” it,…it saves a lot of tears, frustration and aggravation,…hope this suggestion can also help Patricia & i’m sorry to have missed her comment!,…

  • Laura K

    Catholic Church has given too much freedom to women. they continue the work of Eve quite well.

    “The woman you put here with me… she made me do it” … it’s like deja vu all over again. With freedom comes responsibility, saith the Catholic Church, so let Adam’s progeny stick with the subject at hand.

  • georgie-ann

    both Adam’s and Eve’s progeny have a lot to regret and be sorry for,…tit for tat doesn’t really cut it,…better to apologize for one’s own collective mistakes, regroup, and leave it at that,…

  • Kevin J Jones

    I add to John’s comment that the NYTimes is looking the other way about reports of our Afghan allies’ pederasty and child rape.

    One of its writers praised as “heartwarming” the efforts of anthropologists who are training U.S. soldiers to be relativists towards the practice. Click my link for more.

  • georgie-ann

    James 1:8

    “…a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”

    this seems to be the condition of “the world’s so-called and self-esteemed brightest intellectual lights,”…nothing to be believed or admired here,…

  • georgie-ann

    …”better to ACKNOWLEDGE and apologize for one’s own collective mistakes, regroup, and leave it at that,…”

    …working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12),…

  • Jean

    Hi all,
    Just wanted to say that the instructions for how to submit a comment are perfectly clear to me. But I still seem to often fail for some unknown reason to follow them. Then, due to my own fault entirely, my comments are whisked away to be forever “lost in cyberspace”.:-)

    When that happens I usually experience a moment’s irritation WITH MYSELF but then think, “Oh well, perhaps what I was so eager to contribute was not all that appropriate or useful.” And I say a little prayer to the Holy Spirit to ask that IF the ideas I wanted to share were worthwhile they be given to someone else to contribute. It comforts me how often they are, and how much better they are expressed.
    Now let’s see if I can get this poperly on it’s way. 🙂

  • georgie-ann

    for peace of mind, try the copying trick before sending,…highlight (position cursor at top left of beginning of article, click and hold, while moving cursor to cover desired area in blue, release click, press and hold Ctrl (bottom left) and then C, release, blue will be “remembered,”…then, if your article is lost, place cursor at top left of empty comment box, press and hold Ctrl and then V, (your article should reappear exactly as before), and then release,…SO MUCH BETTER THAN LOSING EVERYTHING!

  • Jean

    Thanks georgie-ann, for the helpful suggestion. In my own individual case much of what I write seems upon reflection to be neither original nor all that valuable. So I tend to think “losing everything” I have written when inadvertantly it occasionally happens may not be all that much of a loss. 🙂

  • georgie-ann

    oh, Jean,…you’re too modest!!!! (-;

    it seems that your comments are always welcomed!

  • Doug

    If the New Time’s writes nice things about anyone, that fact alone strains creditibily. The reverse is also true.

  • UrbanRevival

    I am not dismayed at all that Vatican officials “declined to answer.” The NYT is no longer a credible news source – hasn’t been for quite awhile. Their ideology has corrupted them – from the top down. Knowing this, the Vatican responded accordingly.

  • Aaron B.

    Randy,

    Some sort of automated spam prevention is necessary to keep the number of comments down to a manageable number for the human checkers. Even a backwater blog can get hundreds of spam comments a day; a busy site like this one might get thousands.

  • Paul Jacob

    The players are The Catholic Church built and empowered by Our Lord Jesus The Christ, and the devil. The devil has been assaulting the Church from day one, and we need to pan up and back from the field of action and see the enemy who controls the pieces and his pawns. I don’t know which 20th century Pope fell into a reverie and heard The devil dare Our Lord to give him a hundred years and he’ll destroy the Church, and Our Lord told him to go for it.

    If we continue to worry and argue and discuss the actions of mere marionettes and pawns, we will continue to lose ground to the invisible but very real enemy. As Our Lord told his disciples when they couldn’t exorcise the demon from the boy, “This kind goes out only by prayer and fasting.” — Mark 9:14-29.

    The current, massive attack on the church can’t be defeated through politics, forums, and Internet chatting. If we continue trying to find a way to rebut and expose pawns and marionettes we will continue to suffer defeat at the hands of this infernal enemy who knows he’s got little time to make good on his intention to destroy the Church.

    Throughout it’s history, the Church has triumphed over many similar infernal assaults from the devil, and it triumphed only with prayer, sacrifice, and fasting. These are the only weapons we have — these are the only weapons that work. Let’s use them.

    One more thing: Many Catholics live and act as if the world will last forever. I hate to disturb you, but these are the end of days. Armageddon has started, and millions of Catholics are watching the battle on their fancy flat monitors. Our Lord has no use for Internet Warriors. He wants men and women who’d take up the sword of the Cross and kick some serious butt with real prayer, fasting, and sacrifices — most importantly through righteous and holy living.

  • Lawrence Gage

    I haven’t read the Times articles, but it seems to me that the basis of the Times’s complaint against the Church is not so much the abuse of children as hypocrisy. It’s a silly position, but the Times, along with so many moderns, seems to think a person is perfectly acceptable if his actions are consistent with his belief. (Yet somehow a consistent maniac like Hitler is still evil.)

    Of course, this view motivates a general devaluing of morality and makes repentance incomprehensible.

    LG

  • pam
  • Jerry

    Dear Administrator,

    Although Patricia may be the first poster to complain in 2.5 years, she is not the first one to experience the unwitting deletion of difficult to reproduce post. It has happended to yours truly. Is that requirement for posting really necessary? If the post is reviewed and edited prior to its official posting on the website, then why is the SPAM prevention step needed? Can’t an editor tell SPAM from a legitimate post? Thanks for you time.

    RH

    I wish to be the THIRD person to complain. I’ve lost comments several times. Guess I was just too frustrated to complain. If you could just have the comment saved so we don’t have to try to re-construct our thoughts!

    That said, I think you have a great website!

  • georgie-ann

    is it possible, perhaps, to make a clearer warning that if the steps taken to delete things, or also to SHORTEN THINGS, are not carried out exactly correctly, that the whole thing WILL BE LOST, as in irretrievable,…and to make copy–as in copy and paste–would be advisable,…as this can then be pasted back into the empty combox?

  • Shaun B

    I don’t know why people can’t stay on message. Lost posts are irrelevant. What is relevant though is that this article once again proves that despite his detractors, that the Pope is only brilliant.

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