Capitol Ideas

Barque of St. Peter in Troubled Waters

First we need to recognize that something has gone seriously wrong.

By From the June 2010 issue

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The other day my wife and i went to the Pontifical High Mass at the National Shrine in Washington. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI's papacy. The pope has gone out of his way to revive the old Mass (Tridentine rite), and the organizers had been looking for some publicity. The Shrine is an enormous place, seating 3,500 people, and a half-empty church wouldn't look so good. Answered prayer:

A few days before the event, the Mass attracted huge press attention. But not of the desired kind.
The planned celebrant was Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, who was prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome in the years 1996-2006. In other words, he was one of the leading curial officials during the later years of Pope John Paul II. Castrillon turned 80 last July, so he is no longer a voting cardinal.

Then the never-ending saga of sexual abuse reared its ugly head. It was revealed that in 2001 Castrillon had written an embarrassing letter to a French bishop, commending him for refusing to report a criminally abusive priest to the police. The priest had sexually abused 11 minor boys and was later sentenced to 18 years in prison. The bishop received a three-month suspended sentence for not reporting the crimes, in violation of French law. Castrillon had written to the bishop (of Bayeux-Lisieux):

I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration. You have acted well and I am happy to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son, a priest.

Then, on April 16, speaking in Spain at a conference on the legacy of John Paul II, Castrillon really stirred up trouble. He said that in 2001 he had shown this letter to John Paul II, who had authorized him to send it. Then it was posted on the website for the Congregation for the Clergy, where it has long been a public record. It was deliberately publicized just as Cardinal Castrillon was due to arrive in Washington for an event celebrating the pope's anniversary. The goal, surely, was to add to the negative publicity already heaped on Pope Benedict. The letter, of course, actually implicated his predecessor, John Paul II, in tolerating the cover-up of criminally abusive priests.

Protests at the Shrine were promised, and Cardinal Castrillon was promptly disinvited. (By Washington's Archbishop Donald Wuerl? It is not clear.) Castrillon was replaced at the last minute by Edward Slattery, the bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma, since 1994.

When my wife and I reached the Shrine, about 20 minutes ahead of time, most of the pews were already filled. We managed to find seats, but off to one side, the high altar not in view. The music was excellent -- a choir sang a Palestrina Mass -- and as I listened, I pondered some of the developments enveloping the Catholic Church.

THE CHURCH TODAY has an ever growing roster of enemies. The mainline Protestant denominations are succumbing to the anti-Christian rebellion of our time; Episcopalian leaders embrace homosexual bishops. As the rot spreads, the Catholic Church will become ever more conspicuous as a bastion of unfashionable truth -- a standing rebuke to godless egalitarianism; to the pretense that men are interchangeable with women; to the edict that no law should stand in the way of a woman desiring an abortion, that homosexual behavior is acceptable, that single-sex unions are just like normal marriages, that marriage can be put asunder, or dispensed with altogether. In short it is a rebuke to relativism -- to almost everything that the New York Times holds dear.

Modern liberalism seeks to bring maximum discredit upon the present pope and if possible to abolish the institutional Church altogether. "I hope the wretched organization will vanish entirely," the Oxford atheist author Philip Pullman said recently.

Faced with the recent crisis, the dominant impulse of the orthodox Catholic -- to maintain solidarity with the pope -- is one that I certainly accept. But some distinctions are essential. First we need to recognize that something has gone seriously wrong. We also need to pinpoint some errors. Here are some examples, as I see them. The first sheds further light on Cardinal Castrillon.

In the 1980s, the then bishop of Tucson, Manuel Moreno, found himself saddled with a priest, Robert Trupia, who had sexually abused dozens of minor boys and, further, had been protected by the previous bishop of Tucson. When Bishop Moreno tried to take action, Trupia threatened to reveal that he had also had sexual relations with the then bishop of Phoenix, James Rausch (a protégé of Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago). Bishop Moreno took Trupia's case to Rome. At that point Cardinal Castrillon not only protected Trupia but actually threatened Moreno with financial damages if he did not allow the predator to maintain his priestly status within the diocese. Moreno died in 2006.

Meanwhile there had been a fundamental disagreement within the Curia as to how these complaints should be handled. Only in 2001 did Cardinal Ratzinger win that jurisdiction and at that point cover-up ceased to be Church policy. Trupia was laicized in 2004. The details of this case were only recently made available to the National Catholic Reporter and published by Jason Berry. Together with the late Gerald Renner, a reporter for the Hartford Courant, Berry wrote a most informative book called Vows of Silence (2004)

(I knew Jason Berry when I lived in New Orleans in the 1970s and I have recently been back in touch with him. He is a man of the left, and he and I disagree about many things. But we strongly agree that this corruption within the Church needs to be exposed, especially as Roman concealment had been the essence of this corruption.)

The Legion of Christ, founded in Mexico by Fr. Marcial Maciel in 1941, has already been much in the news. Both Maciel and the Legion were praised and supported by John Paul II. But already, going back to 1976, nine seminarians had charged that they had been sexually abused by Maciel, who also turned out to have a daughter and three sons. For years, a stream of support for Maciel and attacks directed at his critics worked to silence criticism. Bundles of cash were handed to high curial officials. Many of these payments were documented in two recent articles by Jason Berry. A particular beneficiary was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state and John Paul's "prime minister" (as the pope referred to him).

On a trip to Rome in 2003, my wife and I were given details of a $100,000 payment to a construction company controlled by Sodano's nephew, in return for Sodano's assurance that the Jesuits would not be able to expand in Mexico, the Legion's home base. In a word, Sodano was bribed. But not everyone was so corrupt. One senior official in Rome who was handed "for his charitable use" an envelope of Legionary cash and who curtly refused it was Cardinal Ratzinger -- later Pope Benedict. In 2004 he initiated an investigation of the Legion, and Maciel was soon disgraced. He died in 2008. In March this year the Legion acknowledged that Maciel had been guilty of "reprehensible action." Further developments are expected. One may wonder whether the Legion will survive.

A PARTICULARLY TROUBLESOME CASE was that of Hans Hermann Groër, who was appointed archbishop of Vienna in 1986, having been plucked from the obscurity of a Benedictine monastery and later made a cardinal. Then the press reported that he had sexually molested boys in his charge, maybe as many as 30 of them, and lied about it.

We are often told these days that we need a hierarchy more sensitive to the victims. We do, but a more fundamental point is that we need priests and bishops who fear God. Groër was forced out in 1995 and replaced by Christoph Schönborn, the current archbishop of Vienna. He has told journalists that when Ratzinger earlier tried to launch an inquiry into Groër he was blocked by "the diplomatic side," by which he meant Cardinal Sodano and John Paul's private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz. The reporter John Allen put it less diplomatically. In attempting to do something about Groer (who died in 2003), Ratzinger was "blocked by John Paul II."

Is there not a pattern here?

It was detected by the National Review film critic and (now) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He wrote in April that while "the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up. This pattern extends to other fraught issues that the last pope tended to avoid -- the debasement of the Catholic liturgy, or the rise of Islam in once-Christian Europe. And it extends to the caliber of the church's bishops, where Benedict's appointments are widely viewed as an improvement over the choices John Paul made....As unlikely as it seems today, Benedict may yet deserve to be remembered as the better pope."

George Weigel, the author of Witness to Hope, the best-known biography of John Paul, wrote in a recent column that it was "virtually inevitable" that the "media firestorm" over Pope Benedict's handling of clergy abuse would "spill backwards toward the late John Paul II." Maybe that is where it belonged all along. Weigel, who among writers had an unrivaled access to the pope, said that John Paul "did not believe" the charges against Fr. Maciel. Some Catholics, Weigel added, "may find it shocking that envelopes of cash were left in the papal apartment." (Count me among them.) He made it clear he was referring to the "support" given to Stanislaw Dziwisz, now the cardinal archbishop of Krakow.

Weigel concedes John Paul's "failure of governance," but assures us that this failure was neither willful nor venal. I am sure that John Paul himself had no interest in money, and it is also highly likely that he didn't know what was going on in his entourage. But maybe that's because he didn't want to know. Maybe he turned a blind eye? And if so, would that be a willful act? That is the question in my mind, especially now that John Paul has been put on the fast track to canonization.

THESE ARE IMPORTANT issues. It is clear that the anti-Catholic strategy is to make Pope Benedict out to be the guilty party. He is more conservative than his predecessor, who is in any event dead and of no concern to the media. Nonetheless, it was John Paul II who tolerated in principle that crimes within the church should remain internal.

The goal seems to have been to protect the laity from scandal and the hierarchy itself from embarrassment and exposure. I hate to bring it up, but recent developments remind me of nothing so much as Watergate. Cover up a crime and now you have two crimes. Also, in an age of unprecedented sexual laxity, the possibility that the Church might actually have been attractive to sexual deviants because they knew their bishops would cover up for them is appalling. But the trial lawyers will expose them, if the bishops won't. If not God, the hierarchy will at least fear bankruptcy.

There is also this. Some of the Church's enemies are eager to show that the real problem in the Church is institutional: the unreasonable imposition of celibacy, for example, or the obstinate refusal to adopt the world's indulgent view of homosexuality. So conservatives who misapply papal inerrancy to whatever is decided in Rome only encourage the view that the fault must indeed be institutional. But it isn't. It's human.

As to the event at the Shrine, it was standing room only and everyone agrees that Bishop Slattery did well. (His sermon can be heard on the web.) Maybe the substitution of Slattery for Castrillon is a sign that in times of trouble, and not for the first time, the Barque of St. Peter is capable of righting itself.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).