Jul 1 2008

Pope Gets Pass on Church Abuse History

Media overlook Benedict’s record of downplaying the issue

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/MATEUS_27: 24&25

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/MATEUS_27: 24&25

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the U.S. in April, Fox News anchor and managing editor Brit Hume spoke of the Catholic leader in language that was more worshipful than journalistic (Fox News Sunday, 4/20/08):

And he turns out to have about him sort of a beatific sweetness that I think is enormously important for a religious leader, that you’re drawn to him. You feel a need to be around him. . . . There was a tremendous sense of his kindness and of the message always, which permeates the Christian faith, of forgiveness.

Hume’s adoration was extreme, but not a complete departure from the tone of many other journalists. In an online commentary (CNN.com, 4/18/08), CNN’s Wolf Blitzer gushed about what a “wonderful opportunity” and “special moment” it was for him to have met the pope. Instead of taking the opportunity to probe the powerful church leader with challenging questions, or any questions at all, Blitzer says he told Benedict, “it was wonderful of him to honor the United States by paying this historic visit.”

Critical coverage was virtually non-existent. This was especially the case with coverage of Vatican efforts against child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, a major theme of Benedict’s tour and an issue that garnered hundreds of largely laudatory reports. The Washington Post (4/21/08) credited Benedict with “directly confront[ing] the clergy sex-abuse crisis,” while the New York Times (4/19/08) said he “has persistently addressed the scandal of child sexual abuse by priests.”

But has Benedict “persistently addressed” the scandal? Not according to London’s Observer newspaper, which has reported (8/17/03) that in 2001, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent a confidential letter to church bishops invoking a 1962 doctrine threatening automatic excommunication for any Catholic official who discussed pending abuse cases outside the church’s legal system (FAIR Media Advisory, 4/29/08, 5/13/08). At the time, Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for investigating abuse claims.

In 1994, according to sources quoted by the Observer (4/24/05), 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 paper, Ratzinger dismissed the case, telling a reporter at the time, “One can’t put on trial such a close friend of the pope.”

In 2006, Benedict asked the 86-year-old Maciel to retire, following a new investigation that began shortly before Ratzinger ascended to the papacy. Citing speculation about why Ratzinger reopened the Maciel case, the Observer (4/24/05) reported:

His reasons for revisiting the case . . . remain unclear. One theory is that Ratzinger learned that confidential evidence will soon spill into the public domain and that he has decided to act ahead of this. Others suggest that he initiated the investigation for political reasons, to help boost his chances of being elected pope.

In the years immediately before he became pope, Ratzinger dismissed media coverage of the abuse scandal as anti-church bigotry (Zenit, 12/3/02), saying, “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.” His reputation on the issue was so well-known that it prompted media speculation that, as pope, Ratzinger would not distinguish himself on the abuse issue. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized (5/26/05) shortly after Ratzinger was elected pope:

The new pope is unlikely to bring more transparency to the issue. Three years ago, he said the whole scandal was a “planned campaign” by the news media to discredit the church. All the more reason why detailed disclosure is necessary, and why it may be up to local church leaders—and the local church faithful—to make it happen.

If the entire scandal was simply an organized media campaign to hurt the church, the media conspiracy was certainly falling down on the job during April’s papal visit. Though these stories have all been reported in one form or another in the U.S. press, during a papal visit that featured a crusade against child sex abuse as a major theme, the information was virtually impossible to find in reporting about Benedict’s new crusade.

Which suggests, contrary to Cardinal Ratzinger’s claim, that journalists would sooner make use of the memory hole than publish accurate information that might embarrass the pope or his church.