I think the thing that is most repulsive about the current media feeding frenzy on Pope Benedict XVI is the appalling combination of slovenly malice with the sheer self-congratulatory demand that Catholics should be gratefulfor their vendetta against him. You know: “Oh, we make some mistakes now and then, but where would you be without us exposing the corruption?”
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, exactly the mentality that abusive priests and the bishops who loved them indulged in while they practiced their particular form of malpractice, and it is not helped one bit by the media doing it now. Yes, yes, MSM: By all means, find the criminal and expose the corruption. But don’t kid me that you are doing anything of the sort when you launch off on an ill-documented campaign to malign Benedicton the flimsiest of pretexts while ignoring the actual corruption.
Let’s get some of the more egregious stuff out of the way first. Sorry, but it’s not a “mistake” when a major news organization runs a headline like, “Pope Describes Touching Boys: I Went Too Far,” and then links a story that has absolutely nothing to do with a claim of sex abuse against the pope. It is libel — malicious libel. But we will not see any demands for the resignation of the clowns responsible, because Catholics do not issue fatwas. Similarly, the grotesque interviews with such experts as Sinead O’Connor and papal-assassin wannabe Mehmet Ali Agca likewise betray a bloodlust that is barely concealed. As one of the readers at First Things points out, it’s like asking Sirhan Sirhan to comment on the Kennedy legacy.
Similar, of course, is the rabid and demented hatred from the usual suspects such as Maureen Dowdand Christopher Hitchens. But since these people are simply living out their ideological bigotries as they are paid to do, one can hardly expect much else. Like Trig Truthers, they just can’t help themselves.
What really disappoints, however, is the supposed “news”: that great machine for selling beer and shampoo in between breathless tales of sex and gore, punctuated by trivia and adoration for abortion, militarism, Caesar, and Mammon. First, we got the completely inaccurate headline from the London Times: “Pope knew priest was paedophile but allowed him to continue with ministry,” a claim that sells beer and shampoo, but doesn’t especially comport with reality.
Shortly thereafter, we get some extremely egregious bad reportage from the New York Times trying and executing Benedict for, well, not very much, while studiously overlooking the actual villain of the piece (who, being a gay martyr, is automatically good and a reliable source of dirt on their common enemy, the pope). Said reportage did not even bother to include any input from Rev. Thomas Brundage, who was the judicial vicar overseeing the proceedings against Rev. Lawrence Murphy. Result: So great was the haste to get the dirt on Benedict that the Nation’s Journal of Record tripped over its own feet in its clumsy malice and missed the real story — that the culprit in failing to do something about Father Murphy was a) the cops who did not bust the creep and b) Bishop Rembert Weakland, who dragged his feet every step of the way.
But Catholics must not complain about this. On the contrary, it would be journalistic malpractice for reporters to ignore the non-story that they themselves have whipped themselves into a frenzy about concerning the Monster in Rome. Any Catholic who objects to the media kangaroo court is an apologist for priestly abuse. Because, you see, there was real abuse, you know. Ergo, Benedict is guilty of whatever a hysterical editor is saying today.
Not that there aren’t real problems with Benedict’s learning curve on sexual abuse back in the 1990s. John Allen (who actually knows what he’s talking about) is basically right to describe Benedict undergoing a “conversion” once he began to grasp the magnitude of the problem around 2001-2002. A conversion means “converting from” as well as “converting to.” The “from” he converted from was the common episcopal culture, which tended to think that abuse was not that common, that it was treatable, that the media was out to get them (true), that their first duty was mercy to the pervert rather than to the victim, that basically it was “being handled” and there wasn’t that big of a problem.
In short, Benedict seems to have given about as much thought to the matter as you and I did before the Long Lent of April 2002 began. Indeed, I remember thinking (when the story started to break at that time), “Didn’t we deal with this ten years ago with the Rudy Kos thing?” Allen’s description strongly suggests that Benedict (who only encountered abuse cases when they involved the confessional, until he was ordered to take on all the abuse cases in the Church in 2001) simply had no grasp of the dimensions of the problem. In this, he appears to be largely like you and me.
From Allen’s description of things, it would appear Benedict encountered the phenomenon relatively rarely until he started to get the full picture and get sick to his stomach in 2001. Before that, he seems to have treated it as part of the workaday steeplechase of problems the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had to handle with sundry other troubles from all over the globe, but not as a crisis that was a cancer on the Church. Given his limited access to facts, that doesn’t shock me.
Ironically, we laity (encouraged by the press) behave in much the same limited way when it comes to sex abuse in the Church. Just as pre-2001 Cardinal Ratzinger only knew of a relatively few cases of sexual abuse, due to his limited access to the facts, so we tend to only know of or care about those children the media deem to be usefully Catholic while simply turning a blind eye to the much larger dimensions of the problem globally that have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse of children is a global epidemic that extends far beyond the clergy or the Church. And, as far as I can tell, the only institution on the planet that is dealing with the problem is the Catholic Church, with Benedict leading the charge. So naturally, we brilliant and holy laity happily attack one of the few leaders on the global stage who is instituting reform: a reform that appears to be starting to work already.
I believe that “Benedict is an evil monster” is not an adequate explanation for him or his papacy and that, basically, the narrative about both hasn’t really changed since the media decided to undertake its annual “Smash Christianity for Holy Week” campaign a couple of weeks ago. That campaign has largely consisted of attempts to declare Benedict a monster and criminal for being carbon-copied on a memo about a priest in Europe who was not under his jurisdiction, and for some bogus complaints about his supposed attempts to thwart justice for a dying pervert priest in the United States. It is transparently weak, yet that has not stopped the press from concocting a smear campaign against him. All part of the normal Holy Week pattern.
Here, after all the hysteria has settled, is where we still are. As Allen relates, once the “filth” (Benedict’s word) started pouring out of his fax machine in 2001, he started to comprehend the problem within the Church and became a zealot for cleanup (more so, alas, than his predecessor). So attacking him after his “conversion” on the depth and gravity of the abuse crisis seems to me to be obviously counter-productive.
In addition to this is the remaining problem, which Allen also points out: namely, the frustration many people feel about Benedict’s not going around lopping off the heads of bishops who behaved like morons and worse when confronted with criminal priests. For reasons similar to the frustration felt over the Church’s failure to run around excommunicating pro-abort politicians, I think this is and has always been a largely delusional quick fix that efficiency-minded Americans will go to their graves believing. It is highly unlikely, in my view, that Benedict is going to go all Innocent III on us and start micromanaging dioceses all over the world. So while he has been much more aggressive in kicking out pervert priests, he seems to me to be following the same pattern as his predecessor in that he is not booting bishops who were morons — only bishops who were themselves criminal perverts.
Some take me to be saying that the pope can’t kick out idiot bishops. In fact, I merely say, “I don’t think he will,” for much the same reasons one can rather easily divine from reading a document like Ut Unum Sint: because he does not, any more than his predecessor, see himself as the CEO of Catholicism, Inc., and does not see it as his job to usurp the global episcopacy. That, at any rate, is how I read his actions.
Someone might ask, “Couldn’t he get rid of two or three of the worst ones?” I suppose so. He could, in theory, get rid of anybody he likes. But will he? I’m skeptical. Especially since the moment he does this, the claim becomes, “That’s just a token response! Get rid of this one and that one and the other one, too!” Before you know it, the pope becomes what Americans least of all want him to be: the Grand Interferer who is trying to tell us how to run our local diocese and who doesn’t understand our unique and wonderful Us-ness, etc. The Eastern Church will be happy to explain how much the patriarch of Rome has never had the right to micromanage all the particular Churches in this way.
A favorite trope at such a juncture is to point to Bishop Jacques Gaillot and his exile to Partenia. Whenever I see this, I’m reminded of science-fiction author Michael Flynn’s dry rejoinder to the claim that Galileo was one of the many scientists persecuted by the Catholic Church: “Name two others.”
In the same way, I’ll see your Gaillot and raise you a Milingo. The fact is, we remember Bishop Gaillot because he is rare. The norm with idiot bishops is more like Bishop Milingo. The guy was as crazy as Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock,and it still took years before Rome was finally ready to get rid of this lunatic who gave them nothing but headaches. They didn’t even do that to the English bishops who all plumped for King Henry VIII. And we seriously expect Benedict to start smiting the global episcopacy hip and thigh?
In addition to this, there is another, radically unconsidered possibility here, particularly in the case of somebody like Benedict, who does not strike me as the monster the media so eagerly makes him out to be: namely, that the real institution that should be dealing with criminals harshly is not the one tasked with bearing the mercy of God to the most desperately wicked. I know this will be unpopular, but think about it: Isn’t it, well, odd that so many people are longing for the Church to become the Rambo of vengeance in this morality play? Does anybody volunteer for this demonstration of divine wrath when it’s their own sins on the line?
Speaking only for myself, I prefer a world in which the cops take care of the jailing, and the Church takes care of the forgiving. So, while it has definite drawbacks, I basically like a Church that is slow to throw even a nut-job like Bishop Milingo under the bus. I like a Church that is slow to excommunicate, slow to damn.
Conversely, I like a justice system that actually prosecutes and jails criminals. I think that the solution to many of these problems remains what it has always been: If we laypeople think that somebody like Father Murphy belongs behind bars, then hey! We own all the cops, guns, lawyers, courts, and jails. But, in fact, we laypeople opted to do nothing about Father Murphy when we knew all too well what sort of creep he was. Instead, we are bizarrely eager to believe the New York Times when it reports, without knowing what it is talking about, that Benedict is somehow responsible for the guy, even though the judicial advocate of his trial (who was gung-ho to get Father Murphy put away) says:
- Again, the abuse took place decades ago.
- [Father Murphy] was suspended.
- There was a canonical trial. It was referred to Rome, the CDF, because it concerned a case of the confessional.
- It was determined that he should be dismissed from the clerical state.
- The priest appealed.
- The appeal process was drawn out for several years because the laws and canonical process of these clerical cases was being overhauled.
- Cardinal Ratzinger was the one who led the charge for the changes to streamline the process.
- When the new procedures went into effect, the Holy See moved swiftly to dismiss him from the clerical state.
- Once again this is a case of lawyers for victims who gave the documents (obviously incomplete) to the Associated Press.
So the latest cry from the scolds and accusers is that Cardinal Ratzinger could not work miracles as he tried to laicize a couple of bad priests. Nevermind that the priests were not reshuffled, nor that Cardinal Ratzinger had no jurisdiction over them, nor that he never tried to hide their crimes, nor that he labored to laicize them in a crappy system he was trying to fix. All we need to know is that he should resign — for The Children. Forget his efforts at reform. We’ve got some people who need to feel good about posturing, no matter the disastrous consequences.
Benedict will remain where he is till the end of his papacy: in the white-hot glare of media hostility from jackals who give not a tinker’s damn about him, the Faith, or abused children who aren’t usefully Catholic. The net result of the press’s vendetta against Benedict is going to be twofold. First, it will poison against him and the Church the great mass of Know-Nothings who get all their info from TV and water-cooler talk. He will go down in history as That Pope Who was a Nazi Pervert or Something Like That among the sort of people who get all their information about the Church from E! and The Da Vinci Code.