Time to lay conspiracy theories to rest

KuengIn the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s announcement of his abdication, it was predictable that old accusations would be resurrected. Foremost among them has been the calumny of his onetime colleague Hans Küng that “There is no denying the fact that the world-wide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger”.

geoffrey-robertsonGeoffrey Robertson, who so embarrassed himself with his misconceived 2010 campaign to have Pope Benedict tried in the International Criminal Court, has recycled Küng’s claim, decreeing the Vatican “an enemy of human rights”.

Francis Boyle echoes Robertson, arguing that the Pope should be dragged before the ICC for crimes against humanity, in accordance with “the well known principle of Command Responsibility”. David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests, has filed an 84-page suit against Benedict with the ICC.

Jeffrey Lena, who represents the Holy See in American lawsuits, has dismissed Clohessy’s lawsuit as a “ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes”, pointing out that, “The notion that the International Criminal Court would ever pursue a case against Pope Benedict XVI, who is widely regarded as one of the great human rights leaders of our time, is both nonsensical and offensive.”

Lena’s analysis is sound: regardless of substance, Clohessy’s lawsuit, like Robertson’s previous campaign, is grievously flawed on procedural grounds entirely irrelevant to the red herring that is the question of diplomatic immunity. Perhaps most obviously, the ICC’s authority is not retroactive, so cannot try crimes that took place before it was established in 2002. More importantly, while child abuse might constitute a crime against humanity under the terms of the ICC, it would only do so if said abuse was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population with the knowledge of the accused. Even those who wrongly believe the Pope directed bishops to conceal abuse tend not to believe that he directed priests to commit it.

Claims that the Pope, when head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, directed bishops to conceal abuse are based on flagrant misreadings of De Delictis Gravioribus, one of two important letters issued by Rome in 2001 in connection with sex abuse.

Pope John Paul II issued Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela to give the CDF authority to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by priests with all minors – rather than just young children, as was previously the case – under the age of eighteen years.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger issued De Delictis Gravioribus in his capacity as head of the CDF. It replaced the old five-year statute of limitation on the sacramental abuses which the CDF could investigate with a new ten-year limit, extending that to ten years after the eighteenth birthday for people alleging abuse; the following year the CDF was granted the power to derogate from this limitation period on a discretionary basis. These new processes empowered victims of clerical abuse, and enabled speedier laicisation of priests who had abused.

De Delictis Gravioribus was widely distributed, and was publicised in the Vatican Yearbook, clarifying that henceforth all abuse allegations were to be reported to the CDF. It did not instruct bishops to take matters to the police, not least because it would be difficult to give such a direction to bishops in countries where the Church is oppressed, but certainly did not bar them from doing so.

Scicluna2“There was no Vatican conspiracy. There was no Vatican cover-up,” acknowledged the Guardian’s Andrew Brown in a March 2010 piece commenting on an interview he’d recently read with Charles Scicluna, then the CDF official responsible for handling abuse cases. Brown explained:

“They get around 250 cases a year now, out of the 400,000 priests around the world. That’s about 0.06% of the priesthood every year, which is not, as [Scicluna] says, the figure which headlines would suggest.

But the crucial line in his evidence comes much earlier. He says that between 1975 and 1983, there was not a single case referred to his office from anywhere in the world. This is astonishing.

I’m sure he’s telling the truth. But this should be scaring him out of his wits because the period when nothing at all was reported to Rome was also when the abuse was most frequent and widespread and from which the worst stories have since emerged.”

Brown has good reason for believing Scicluna, whose claim is supported by Irish evidence. Over the last decade, the Irish government commissioned three independent inquiries into how allegations of abuse by clergy were handled by the country’s religious and secular authorities: 2005’s Ferns Report, 2009’s Dublin Report, and 2011’s Cloyne Report. Examining allegations made between 1962 and 2009 against 85 priests and one bishop, these reports reveal that prior to 2005 not even one allegation was submitted to Rome.

This, it appears, was typical. Far from Rome directing bishops to conceal abuse, bishops chose to conceal abuse from Rome, even where doing so was contrary to the Church’s own rules,  described in the Murphy Report as having fallen into disuse and disrespect during the mid-twentieth century, trapped between the 1960s and 1980s in a state of flux and confusion.

Given this, the weakness of Boyle’s argument is clear for a number of reasons not the least of which is that Pope Benedict, when head of the CDF, was entirely dependent on his brother bishops to tell him of wrongdoing in their dioceses; he was hardly to know that they were withholding information, and lacked resources to find out whether this was the case. As John Allen puts it, “The Vatican does not have the tools to micromanage.”

RatzingerBW4aaaOblivious to the realities of the ICC and the Church, Jonathan Freedland asserts that whatever little Benedict did to deal with the evil of child abuse he did too late, and under duress. In criticising Benedict’s actions from before he was Pope, however, Freedland seems almost wholly dependent on discredited New York Times reports.

In 1980 Benedict, then Archbishop of Munich, allowed the abusive German priest Peter Hullermann to be treated in his diocese for paedophilic tendencies. “Within days,” says Freedland, “this known sexual predator was given pastoral duties with access to young people – and he promptly abused again. Benedict’s defenders have long insisted those fateful decisions were taken by his deputy. But the crucial documents, when they surfaced, said otherwise.”

Years, not days, passed before Hullermann abused again, but more importantly, Freedland omits to mention how Benedict’s then vicar general, Gerhard Gruber, has rebutted claims that he had been pressured into taking full responsibility for Hullermann being reassigned to pastoral duties. Insisting that the decision was his alone, he is adamant that he never discussed the matter with the then Cardinal Ratzinger.

Freedland presents Benedict, when head of the CDF, as reluctant to punish abusive Californian priest Stephen Kiesle, delaying for years before finally laicising him; this argument rests entirely on a New York Times article that misunderstands the documents that accompany it. The reality was rather different.

Kiesle was convicted of child molestation in 1978, and was barred from ministry by his diocese; in 1981 he asked to be laicised. Laicisation, sometimes inflicted as a punishment, is only granted to priests who request it if they’re in good standing with the Church. Kiesle, obviously, wasn’t, so Rome was loath to grant his request. Benedict signed a form letter in 1985, saying that the matter needed further consideration, and two years later Kiesle’s wish was granted. Crucially, the abuse case was never sent to Rome, and there was no question of Benedict refusing to punish an abusive priest; if anything, he was reluctant to reward one.

Considering the case of Lawrence Murphy, who Wisconsin’s police refused to prosecute for abusing boys in a school for the deaf between 1950 and 1974, but whose ministry his diocese nonetheless limited for decades, Freedland accepts the New York Times line without demurral. He declares, “Eventually a secret, canonical trial of Murphy began in 1996, ordered by Ratzinger’s deputy. But the trial was halted after the abuser wrote a personal plea to Ratzinger.”

This simply isn’t true: documents published in connection with the case reveal no involvement at all in the affair by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, all responses coming from his deputy. They also show that the canonical trial was simply halted as his bishop thought it simpler to limit further the dying Murphy’s already constrained movements through administrative rather than judicial means; Murphy died two days later.

Child sex abuse is one of our world’s great scourges, almost a quarter of British adults between the ages of 18 and 24, for example, having experienced some form of sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence. It needs to be taken seriously and grappled with honestly. Lazy journalism and vexatious publicity stunts do nothing for the real interests of abuse survivors, whose interests are poorly served by ill-founded criticisms of a Pope under whose leadership, Jeffrey Lena points out, “more has been done by the Catholic Church to address the sexual abuse issue than by any other organization.”

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