By Russell Shaw
It’s probably premature to think the latest furor over clergy sex abuse has begun to subside, but by no means is it too soon to draw some useful, troubling conclusions from what has happened so far. Here are three.
First, the coverup of abuse in years past has done and continues to do enormous harm. Are there more time bombs ticking away in ecclesiastical files one place or another waiting to explode?
Explain until you’re blue in the face that time and again these horrible things happened years, indeed decades, ago: if the coverup has continued until now, people will be furious just the same — and they’ll blame those in charge now for what happened back then.
Many Church leaders have yet to grasp that the culture of secrecy has to go. Here and there that seems to be sinking in, but it’s slow going. Until it’s universally recognized that the ordinary presumption in Church affairs should favor openness, with secrecy reserved for cases of real necessity, there’s more trouble ahead.
The second conclusion is that Pope Benedict has been very shabbily treated during this latest go-round.
His record — as archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope — needs no apologies. Indeed, in the last decade especially he’s shown courage and foresight in his handling of the abuse crisis.
But you’d never know that from the critics. They accuse Benedict of mishandling two abuse cases in particular.
In one, the vicar general of the Munich archdiocese returned to pastoral ministry an abuser-priest who’d had psychiatric treatment without telling Cardinal Ratzinger. In the other, involving a Milwaukee priest, the former judicial vicar of the archdiocese says the trial of this elderly, dying man was terminated — and the man died — three years before jurisdiction over such cases was transferred to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Vatican congregation.
That’s all. Efforts to use these incidents to indict the pope would be laughable if the matter weren’t so serious.
Benedict didn’t get a lot of help from his Vatican colleagues in the early days of this dustup. The Vatican appeared to have been caught flat-footed, and it responded clumsily or by clamming up. Here’s a fresh reminder that the Holy See needs someone skilled in hands-on crisis management. That isn’t the pope’s job, and it’s obvious that no one else is doing the job now.
The third conclusion is that elements of the media abandoned elementary standards of fairness in this episode. It’s hard not to think that happened because they sensed a fresh opportunity to strike a blow at the Church — indeed, at the pope himself.
If not, then what really did pass through the minds of people in the newsrooms of major outlets like The New York Times and the Washington Post to account for various bizarre editorial decisions lately?
Thus, in one pre-Easter incident, when the official papal preacher, a man with no policy role at the Holy See, haplessly likened the campaign against the Vatican to “collective violence” against the Jews, these and other news organizations leaped on the remark screaming “Gotcha!” even though they routinely ignore everything else this individual says.
But merely blaming the media, however blameworthy they may be, doesn’t help. We learned that to our sorrow when the scandal erupted in the United States eight years ago. In the end, it’s the culture of secrecy that makes the Church vulnerable to unfair coverage and commentary. And for the persistence of secrecy we have ourselves to blame.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.