The Vatican is lashing out at mounting news reports suggesting that, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger used his positions to cover up the the church's sex abuse scandals, with little regard for the child victims of the abusers or the law. A Vatican spokesperson denounced the reporting as an "ignoble attempt" to smear the pope "at any cost."
In fact, increased U.S. media interest in the pope's role in church scandals should be a welcome development. Following Benedict's 2008 visit to the U.S.–intended, among other things, to address the abuse scandals–Extra! (7-8/08) chided U.S. media for fawning coverage of the pope, and particularly for its failure to mention Ratzinger's key role in the scandals.
Extra! cited one London Observer report (8/17/03) that revealed that in 2001, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican agency charged with addressing the church's sexual abuse scandals, Ratzinger sent a secret directive to bishops worldwide, threatening automatic excommunication for any Catholic official who discussed pending abuse cases outside the churchÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢”Å¡Â¬ÃƒÂ¢”Å¾Â¢s legal system.
Another Observer story (4/24/05) reported that, in 1994, Ratzinger personally dismissed charges of sex abuse against Father Marcial Maciel, the head of an influential conservative seminary in Mexico and a personal confidant to then-Pope John Paul II. Maciel was accused of abusing several children over decades. According to the Observer, Ratzinger told a reporter at the time, "One can't put on trial such a close friend of the pope." (Twelve years later, on the eve of his elevation to the papacy, Ratzinger reopened the investigation of Maciel, later asking the aging priest to resign.)
Recent Vatican attacks on the media echo earlier Vatican media assaults by Ratzinger himself. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2001, Ratzinger dismissed coverage of scandals as anti-church bigotry (Zenit, 12/3/02), calling it a "a planned campaign" to smear the church. In that regard, little has changed. What has changed, thankfully, is that the U.S. media seem to be paying more attention now. Let's hope media interest doesn't flag in the face of church attacks.