The media mantra over the weekend, and they increasingly hyperventilated as the tone ramped up, was ‘What did the Pope know and when did he know it?’ Headlines by Sunday on the 24/7 news cycles were something having to do with ‘Calls for the Pope to resign!’

Yes, Benedict is beleaguered, as is the Church, but one casualty out of the public eye is truth. Or as National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen said, “the first casualty of any crisis is perspective,” and facts are surely falling and buried in all the orchestrated fury over the abuse crisis that’s erupted worldwide. He correctly notes in this good piece that “raising these questions is entirely legitimate,” but let’s get some things straight in this debate.

There are at least three aspects of Benedict’s record on the sexual abuse crisis which are being misconstrued, or at least sloppily characterized, in today’s discussion. Bringing clarity to these points is not a matter of excusing the pope, but rather of trying to understand accurately how we got where we are.

I’m very keen on clarity, so let’s go for it…

First, some media reports have suggested that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided over the Vatican office with responsibility for the sex abuse crisis for almost a quarter-century, from 1981 until his election to the papacy in April 2005, and therefore that he’s responsible for whatever the Vatican did or didn’t do during that entire stretch of time. That’s not correct.

In truth, Ratzinger did not have any direct responsibility for managing the overall Vatican response to the crisis until 2001, four years before he became pope.

Bishops were not required to send cases of priests accused of sexual abuse to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until 2001, when they were directed to do so by Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio titled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. Prior to that, most cases involving sex abuse never got to Rome.

So Ratzinger was “not the point man.” Now about that infamous letter…

In some reporting and commentary, a May 2001 letter from Ratzinger to the bishops of the world, titled De delictis gravioribus, is being touted as a “smoking gun” proving that Ratzinger attempted to thwart reporting priestly sex abuse to the police or other civil authorities by ordering the bishops to keep it secret.

That letter…was not intended to prevent anyone from also reporting these cases to the police or other civil authorities…

In reality, few bishops needed a legal edict from Rome ordering them not to talk publicly about sexual abuse. That was simply the culture of the church at the time, which makes the hunt for a “smoking gun” something of a red herring right out of the gate.

Now here’s the point about that 2001 letter, Allen says:

Far from being seen as part of the problem, at the time it was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse really is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved…

For those who have followed the church’s response to the crisis, Ratzinger’s 2001 letter is therefore seen as a long overdue assumption of responsibility by the Vatican, and the beginning of a far more aggressive response.

And that hasn’t been a very big group, since most of the world’s media and certainly all of the Church’s opponents pick their moments to jump on an allegation and then start cranking out what passes as journalism, when it’s merely reporting on the reporting, which is usually not original and not sourced or researched.

The new norms the American bishops developed to ensure swifter handling of alleged cases of abuse set the pace for the Church, and Rome responded far better to their system and precedent than the New York Times and other media either acknowledge, or even know. Allen points out that anyone paying attention would know this background. Enough said there…

It’s ironic, Allen says, that the Times and others have been accusing Ratzinger/Benedict of “inaction”, when the opposite is the reality.

In truth, handling 60 percent of the cases through the stroke of a bishop’s pen has, up to now, more often been cited as evidence of exaggerated and draconian action by Ratzinger and his deputies.

Obviously, none of this is to suggest that Benedict’s handling of the crisis — in Munich, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or as pope — is somehow exemplary. An accounting needs to be offered if this pope, and the church he leads, hopes to move forward. For that analysis to be constructive, however, as opposed to fueling polarization and confusion, it’s important to keep the record straight.

L’Osservatore Romano published an editorial trying to do that, stating pointedly that there’s been “no cover-up” in Rome.

Transparency, firmness and severity in shedding light on several cases of sexual abuse by priests and religious: these are the criteria that Benedict XVI is indicating, with constancy and serenity, to the entire Church. A work method – consistent with his personal history and more than twenty years of experience as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – that is feared by those who apparently do not want the truth to be asserted but who would prefer to exploit, without any foundation in fact, horrible episodes and painful events in some cases dating back to decades ago…

The purposes have been indisputably confirmed by the Pope, as evidenced by his recent pastoral letter to Catholics in Ireland. But the prevailing trend in the media is to ignore the facts, preferring  instead to force interpretations in order to disseminate an image of the Catholic Church as almost solely responsible for sexual abuse, a view that does not correspond to reality, and which is furthermore in function of the rather obvious and ignoble intention of attacking Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators at all costs.

And the Vatican was attacked for this editorial, too.

What remains intriguing to me is how hard the media pounded the image of Cardinal Ratzinger as the “doctrinal hardliner” when he was head of the CDF, and when he was elected pope their initial reaction – headlines and story ledes carried this everywhere for some time – was that “God’s Rottweiler” would now take over the Church. They spread the dreaded notion that the Enforcer would be cracking heads in his intolerant manner (a caricature created by them, notwithstanding). So there’s been a real flip here.

Look who’s become the Grand Inquisitor now.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....