The priest sex abuse scandal is closing in on the pope

BOSTON — I tried all day Easter Sunday to bite my tongue.

And I pretty much succeeded as we celebrated the day in a way that a lot of Catholic families do. Our family went to Mass and we gathered all the nieces and nephews for a big Easter egg hunt.

And through it all I didn’t say a word. I was trying to focus on the meaning of the day and having fun with the kids and maybe for once not paying so much attention to the news cycle which all through Holy Week was centering on the Catholic Church.

I didn't say a word with my family about the way the Vatican has handled the latest priest sex abuse scandals, which is deepening a stress crack in the foundation of the church that cuts beyond America now and runs deep into Europe and beyond.

I didn’t say a word about how disgraceful it is that the church hierarchy seems to care more about protecting itself than it does about reaching out to those victims who’ve been so damaged by the abuse, and who have so actively pursued costly litigation that has left a string of arch dioceses in Boston and elsewhere in financial ruin.

I didn’t say a word about the failed stewardship of those bishops and cardinals — and reportedly the pontiff himself when he was a cardinal in Munich and then again when he served in the Vatican — who for so many decades sought to sweep the problem under the rug by shuttling predatory priests from one congregation to the next.

But now it’s the Sunday after Easter and, well, I’m not biting my tongue. The allegations continue to mount.  A front page story in The  New York Times on Saturday reported that in the mid-1980s, Pope Benedict XVI, when he headed up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed a letter that delayed the defrocking of a uniquely sadistic pedophile priest who tied up and abused young boys in a California church rectory.

And over the last week I got around to actually reading the text of the outrageous sermon by a Franciscan priest that was delivered in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican at a solemn Good Friday service. With Pope Benedict XVI sitting on the altar of the Holy See, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa compared the worldwide criticism of the church’s burgeoning sexual abuse scandal to the "shameful aspects of anti-Semitism."  In this worldview, the Vatican sees the media as the villain intent on a “defamatory campaign,” as one Vatican official has put it, to damage the church.

It is an insult to history to make such a claim and more importantly it is a denigration of the suffering of the Jewish people through the holocaust to make such a comparison. That Pope Benedict XVI — who came of age amid the evils of Nazism in his native Germany — did not condemn that sermon is a sin, proof that he still doesn't understand that it's not the media's fault that the Church leadership has failed so dramatically to confront a darkness within. That the pope didn't understand how much that sermon would anger the world's Jewish communities is one more example of the tin ear he seems to have in understanding Catholic-Jewish relations.

These two issues — the priest sex abuse scandal and worsening relations between Catholics and Jews — are through this Easter sermon intertwined, and they are twisting around his papacy like a vile and destructive weed. He won't be forced to resign, but most Vatican observers would say his legacy will be badly tarnished.

So I just can't keep quiet any more. I can’t see any sense of humility or respect in trying to do so. In fact, I see some dangerous complicity in silence.

 

First of all, the "media" is not a monolith out to get the Catholic church. Reporters who have worked hard to expose injustice on the part of priests and the church hierarchy that allowed them to prey on children are not villains. We were just doing our job.

I started reporting on this sordid story 20 years ago when I uncovered a disturbing side of Father Bruce Ritter, a kind of folk hero in New York who saved kids from the street. The only problem was that a long list of those street kids came forward to say Ritter, the founder of the charity Covenant House, was also sexually abusing them. It was one of the first, big national priest sex abuse scandals to break in the country and I wrote a book about it titled "Broken Covenant".

I returned to the story in 2002 when I did reporting from the Vatican for The Boston Globe that augmented the Spotlight Team's investigation of priest sex abuse scandals. Through it all, I never lost my faith. Not yet, anyway. And I don't think I'm much different than a lot of reporters I know who happen to be Catholic and who've been part of a hard journey to bring the darkness of the Catholic Church's priest sex abuse scandal into the light.

Many of these reporters, like at least a half dozen or so of my colleagues from The Boston Globe, and others at National Catholic Reporter and ABC News and several different news organizations that have investigated these cases, are strong reporters who were born into and remain connected to their Catholic faith. I’m thinking of Kevin Cullen and Tom Farragher at the Globe and Jason Berry in New Orleans who has written powerfully on this issue as an author and correspondent for NCR longer than any one. For reporters like these, the mission to tell the truth is right up there along side the Sunday school catechism they learned growing up. In fact, digging at the truth might even be something you could say we happened to learn through our faith.

And so I found myself praying for the leadership of the church to wake up and take a clear look around them, and to abandon this insular, anti-media approach. I hope they might stop blaming those of us in the media and instead look more closely at the church and at their own failings. After years of reporting on this subject, my sense is that there are few who embody this rigidity against the media, or what he would call “the secular media,” more than the pope himself.

This rejection of the secular world is something of a pattern in the life of Joseph Ratzinger. This is the name with which he was born before he took the name Benedict XVI for his papacy. From what we know about his past, it seems Ratzinger has often turned away from the sweeping forces of history swirling around him and retreated back into his faith, into the scripture.

In fact, the day after his election in Rome, he explained that he chose the name Benedict for his papacy as a reflection of this deeply private relationship with God, and this characteristic intolerance for any forces of modernity that might challenge that relationship. It was the 5th century Saint Benedict who retreated from the chaos and decadence of the time to seek solitude in the countryside and establish what he called “a rule of life,” which would become the basis for the orderly life inside monasteries tucked away from the temptations and challenges of the secular world.

 

When I was in Germany in 2005 researching the young Ratzinger’s coming of age during World War II in Bavaria and his rise through the German church and then the Roman curia, I realized this theme of retreating from modern crisis is a theme repeated at several turns in his life.

When perhaps the greatest evil the modern world has ever known surrounded him as he came of age Hitler's Third Reich, he focused on his seminary studies. He dutifully joined Hitler Youth at age 14, turning his focus to prayer and texts and trying to avoid the horrors around him. OK, he was a very young man at that time albeit old enough to be confirmed a Catholic. I’m not suggesting that he supported Nazism just because he joined Hitler Youth. He would have had to risk his life to resist joining. But I do think it is very much worth noting that there were young German men in his town of the same age, like Rev. Rupert Berger, who was ordained a priest with the young Ratzinger on the same day, who did resist joining Hitler Youth.

My sense from reporting on those who knew Ratzinger then is that Ratzinger and his family must have clung to a faith that the war would some day pass and he would be ordained.

In the late 1960s in German colleges when radicalism was battering campuses and attacking the German establishment, he taught theology at the University of Tubingen. But he retreated from the arguments of the day again and disappeared into the comforts of conservative Bavaria and a smaller college campus where he could again focus on his internal life of prayer.

He must have figured the social revolution would pass and he would aspire to become a bishop and then a cardinal.

And in the 1980s and 1990s when he was in positions of responsibility in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the great evil that was going on with priests abusing children came to his attention, he again sought to turn away and to minimize and to blame the media and to turn inward toward the church.

When I was reporting in Rome on the priest sex abuse scandal which was erupting in Boston in 2002, I heard the Vatican line often put forward by Cardinal Ratzinger himself that the scandal was an American phenomenon and not one that concerned the worldwise Catholic church. The general view was that was all an unseemly result of a litigious society and there seemed to be more concern about containing damage church than ministering to victims. While it should be said that Ratzinger did eventually recognize the failings of the church in the scandal and the need for some action, he was late in doing so. So much damage — spiritual and financial — had already been done.

He must have believed this priest sex scandal was just an American problem and it would end some day and he would continue to play a prominent role in the church and, as fate would have it, become pope.

But I can’t understand where Joseph Ratzinger retreats to now? As the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics, Benedict XVI needs to lead and to more deeply engage the world on human terms. He needs to stop blaming the media and the modern world for its failures when the church itself has so many failures for which it still needs to answer.