Rewriting Ratzinger’s Record to Create a Hero of the Abuse Scandal

While FAIR Blog complained earlier (3/30/10) that coverage of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal was overlooking Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s involvement in the story before he became Pope Benedict XVI, yesterday two prominent op-eds focused on this history. Unfortunately, both op-eds present a highly selective version of Ratzinger’s role.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (4/12/10) cites the reporting of Jason Berry (National Catholic Reporter, 4/6/10), who is critical of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, for his support of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a child molester who founded the influential Legion of Christ:

Only one churchman comes out of Berry’s story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. Berry recounts how Ratzinger lectured to a group of Legionary priests, and was subsequently handed an envelope of money ‘for his charitable use.’ The cardinal ‘was tough as nails in a very cordial way,’ a witness said, and turned the money down…. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Macielâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.

The Maciel case was similarly cited in a USA Today op-ed (4/12/10) by Philip Lawler, editor of the Catholic World News (and former Senate candidate of the far-right Constitution Party), as evidence of Ratzinger’s integrity: “Soon after his election, he instigated action against another notorious abuser: the head of a wealthy and influential religious order.”

You wouldn’t think from reading these testimonials that Ratzinger was first informed about Maciel’s pattern of abuse in 1994, at which time the cardinal reportedly said that the Maciel case was a “touchy problem” due to the “benefits” the priest had brought to the Vatican. (The future pope was later quoted, “One can’t put on trial such a close friend of the pope as Marcial Maciel.”) Nor would you imagine that Ratzinger’s secretary had written in 1999 to the men who had brought detailed charges against Maciel to say that the case against the cleric was considered closed(London Observer, 4/24/05). These details put Benedict’s discipline of the then-86-year-old Maciel in 2006 in a less-heroic light.

Both writers also present Ratzinger’s centralization of sexual abuse investigations under his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as evidence for his zeal to persecute child abusers in the church. “It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the churchâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office,” Douthat wrote, while Lawler noted, “In 2001, at Cardinal Ratzinger’s urging, all disciplinary cases involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests were assigned to the Vatican office he then headed.”

Unmentioned was the controversy over the letter Ratzinger wrote in 2001 threatening to excommunicate any bishop who discussed abuse cases outside of the church’s legal system (Extra!, 7-8/08; FAIR Media Advisory, 5/13/08). Ratzinger’s 2002 assertion that the scandal amounted to a persecution of the church–“I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign” (Zenit, 12/3/02)–was not quoted.

Both Douthat and Lawler are surprisingly critical of Pope John Paul II, long a hero to conservative Catholics, for protecting prominent pedophiles. This criticism would come across as more sincere if the record of the current head of the church were subjected to the same scrutiny.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.