Over the past few weeks the New York Times has twice reported that new evidence links Pope Benedict XVI to the cover-up of two separate instances of clerical child abuse under his jurisdiction: one case involving the abusive principal of a school for deaf children in Milwaukee that was referred to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996, and the other relating to an abusive priest’s return to full time ministry even after Ratzinger permitted the priest to be transferred to his archdiocese of Munich for therapy in 1980.
The first Times story lacks a firm basis. The Times‘ own documentation doesn’t tell the story that the headline claims, the sources questioned are not very credible, and today the judicial vicar who presided over the canonical trial of the abusive priest writes that he was never contacted by the Times even though they quoted him extensively, and that they and other outlets misquoted him.
The second Times report, too, fails in what is clearly its purpose: to establish that the pope is entangled in the scandal. But it raises serious questions about what then-Cardinal Ratzinger knew and when he knew it. Further reporting could establish that Ratzinger was indeed guilty of at least negligence, or it could exonerate him completely.
What these articles have accomplished, as thinly reported as they are, is to give the pope’s usual detractors a jumping-off point for connecting Benedict’s theology to his personal involvement in sex-abuse scandals. Take as one example of many this article by Christopher Hitchens published in the National Post, which condemns the pope in the strongest terms: “Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil – a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel.” Now, much of Hitchens’s argument is way off — Sean Murphy has provided an exhaustive and painstakingly documented account of the numerous and serious errors of fact, internal contradictions, and obfuscations. But the motivation for the piece was to try to establish how far up the Church hierarchy the responsibility for the crisis runs, and to shed a light on Benedict’s personal responsibility.
And given the Church’s recent disgraceful record in handling clerical abuse, that impetus — trying to establish Benedict’s culpability — is definitely a worthwhile one. If Benedict is in fact guilty of covering up for abusive priests, then the truth must come out and he must be held accountable. After all, even if he’s guilty of nothing more than negligence, the Church should be held to a higher standard, and that starts at the top.
On the other hand, if he’s innocent of these charges, the available evidence suggests that Benedict has done more to rid the Church of the sex abuse crisis than anyone.
Either way, the New York Times has done the truth a disservice. All that publishing these thinly-source accusations has accomplished is to create two camps: one that thinks the Vatican is guilty and is trying to poison its believers’ minds into rejecting any claim otherwise, and another that concludes that the usual collection of anti-Church bigots are mounting a coordinated smear campaign against the pope, who must be defended. Of course, what both sides really want is just the truth. But it’s not so simple now.
Again, if the Times is on to something, the pope must be held accountable. But if not, the Times must be held similarly accountable for the damage it’s done.