The Corner

The Pope & the New York Times

Yes, I’ve been reading the New York Times the last two days, and it strikes me that the biggest scandal here is not the hot story the media wants to run with — that then Cardinal Ratzinger was involved — but that after these horrendous crimes were committed, it took three decades for something to be done about it and four decades before Rome heard about it. This priest probably should have been laicized — in the 1950s.

This case was clearly mishandled, but all blame does not lead to Rome. The fact that the Milwaukee archdiocese has a mess of a history (including Archbishop Rembert Weakland stepping down in scandal) is not breaking news so much as a shameful reality.

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen has a useful piece for anyone trying to follow what happened and when and who is to blame for what — as best as that is clear. In part, he writes:

Here’s the key point about Ratzinger’s 2001 letter: Far from being seen as part of the problem, at the time it was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse really is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved. Prior to that 2001 motu proprio and Ratzinger’s letter, it wasn’t clear that anyone in Rome acknowledged responsibility for managing the crisis; from that moment forward, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would play the lead role.

Beginning in 2001, Ratzinger was forced to review all the files on every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world, giving him a sense of the contours of the problem that virtually no one else in the Catholic church can claim. In a recent article, I outlined the “conversion experience” Ratzinger and his staff went through after 2001. Beforehand, he came off as just another Roman cardinal in denial; after his experience of reviewing the files, he began to talk openly about the “filth” in the church, and his staff became far more energetic about prosecuting abusers.

For those who have followed the church’s response to the crisis, Ratzinger’s 2001 letter is therefore seen as a long overdue assumption of responsibility by the Vatican, and the beginning of a far more aggressive response. Whether that response is sufficient is, of course, a matter for fair debate, but to construe Ratzinger’s 2001 letter as no more than the last gasp of old attempts at denial and cover-up misreads the record.

My friend Fr. Raymond DeSouza in Toronto has also written a piece worth reading, which gets to the heart of the issue: There is a deep and shameful history of Catholics not being Catholic — including in seminaries and rectories. He writes, in part:

In the 1960s, like much of society and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church simply abandoned her disciplinary life. Doctrinal dissent was not corrected, but often celebrated. Liturgical abuses, both minor and outrageously sacrilegious, were tolerated. Bishops simply stopped inquiring into priestly asceticism, prayer and holiness of life. Non-Catholics often have an image of the Catholic Church as a ruthlessly efficient organization with a chain of command that would make the armed forces jealous. The reality for most of the 1960s to 1980s was the opposite. A priest could preach heresy, profane the Holy Mass, destroy the piety of his people and face no consequences. The overseers decided to overlook everything. It is any surprise, then, that when accusations of criminal immorality emerged they too were dealt with inadequately, if at all?

Pope Benedict, in his bluntly-worded letter to Irish Catholics last week wrote that the bishops “failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.” Too many bishops weren’t Catholic enough. They failed, for example, to follow the clear direction of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that a cleric who commits sexual sin with a minor “is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”


A culture of laxity had so infected bishops that their disciplinary muscles had severely atrophied. It was not as if they were vigilant rulers in all aspects, but perversely indulgent of sexual abuse. Indulgence was shown to abuses of all kinds. So latitudinarian had the clerical culture become that even modest attempts at doctrinal discipline were widely mocked — or do we forget that the progressive press, inside and outside the Church, calling Joseph Ratzinger “God’s Rottweiler”?

We are continually undergoing renewal — but specifically there have been real operational changes in how the Church handles questions and crimes and scandals in recent years. Fr. DeSouza notes:

Like doctrine and liturgy, the attempt was to effect a culture change — precisely because any existing rules are useless in a culture of laxity. It takes time to change a culture, but what does culture change in the Church look like?

Since 2001, Rome has dealt with some 3,000 cases stretching back a half century or more. Canadian bishops were ahead of the curve; since 1989 there have been strict protocols in place. The current one for the Archdiocese of Toronto requires reporting abuse to civil authorities within one hour. Just last week my superiors dispatched a letter to another diocese I intend to visit testifying to my probity — including criminal checks, sobriety and soundness of morals. That’s now routine.

A cultural change that is vigilantly Catholic — living and embracing and teaching and enforcing what the Church truly believes is the ultimate solution, on all levels. (It’s about The Courage to Be Catholic, as George Weigel put it in 2002.)

This pope has confronted some of these crimes in a most necessarily contrite way — in the U.S., regarding Ireland, etc. I pray we hear more from him, because he does tend to be the Vatican’s best spokesman. I suspect we will.


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