On Sunday I appeared on The Big Questions on BBC1 to discuss whether
the pope should “resign”. It quickly descended into a heckling circus
where calmly reasoned argument fell victim to unfocused outrage.
Afterwards, two representatives of the Protest the Pope Coalition told
me menacingly I had “no right” to defend Benedict XVI’s record on abuse.
shouting down the truth doesn’t make it go away. I don’t defend the
pope because I think it is the duty of a good Catholic; I defend him
because he is completely innocent of the charges made against him, and
because the media has merged with the mob and misreported the facts.
The three recent stories from the US cited by Richard Dawkins
and his mob as “proving” that the pope should be arrested under
international law – the horrible cases of Murphy in Wisconsin, Teta and
Trupia in Arizona, and now Kiesle in California – have this in common:
the abuse took place in the 1970s; the police were informed and acted;
the priest was suspended by his bishop; requests for dismissal from the
clerical state (“defrocking”) were sent to Cardinal Ratzinger’s
department in the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith; and some time later the priests were defrocked – except in the
case of Murphy, who died during his trial.
defrocking are two separate actions. The first can be done by a bishop,
with immediate effect; the second is a lengthy process that involves
Rome. Suspension – meaning a priest is no longer able to function as a
priest – say mass, hear confession, act as chaplain etc – is the key
action that a bishop has to take against an abusive priest to prevent
him having contact with minors. If, in any of these “smoking gun”
cases, the bishop failed to suspend an abusive priest immediately, he
did wrong. But such failure would have had nothing to do with Cardinal
Ratzinger, whose only involvement was when a request for defrocking
landed on his desk.
The time Rome took over each defrocking says
nothing whatsoever about cover-up or collusion. It says only that
defrocking was then a complex and elaborate procedure that took too
long. However, what prevented the abuse was not the defrocking but the
suspension by the bishop. There is no link between the length of the
defrocking process and the priest’s opportunity to abuse. In fact, in
the case of Kiesle, most of the abuse for which he was convicted took
place after he was defrocked, when his bishop had no more control over
But wasn’t Ratzinger in charge while all this was going on?
Didn’t it happen on his watch? No. From 1981 to 2001 he was in charge
of a department that dealt with defrocking, but not with suspensions
and penalties for paedophile priests, which were the responsibility of
local bishops. A number of bishops failed to suspend the abusive
priests, some of whom continued to abuse. That is the scandal. It has
been exposed and dealt with, and a number of bishops have, as a result,
resigned. More important, guidelines are now in place to prevent it
ever happening again.
Not only was Cardinal Ratzinger not
complicit in these failures, he was the Vatican official who most
clearly saw what was needed to tackle the problem. Then, in 2001, Pope
John Paul asked him to review the local churches’ handling of clerical
abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger asked bishops around the world to
forward to him all cases where credible allegations had been made
He did this not to “cover up” the crimes – which
had been reported to the local police – but to ensure that the priests
were more speedily dealt with. He accomplished this by amending the
procedure for defrocking to allow for a fast-track procedure that did
not involve trials.
Some try to make out that Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2001 letter
orders a cover-up by insisting that parties observe secrecy under pain
of excommunication. What it actually says is that confidentiality
should be observed during church trials, to allow the victims to give
evidence freely and to protect the accused until found guilty. There is
nothing in that letter preventing victims reporting the case to the
police, and the assumption is that they should.
Pope Benedict is
not responsible for cover-up, collusion, turning a blind eye,
institutional idolatry or any of the other accusations that, with
greater or lesser vehemence, have been hurled at the Catholic church
during recent weeks. On the contrary, he is the one in the Vatican who
has done most to rid the church of this scourge. He is the one who has
acted most consistently and energetically to improve the church’s
handling of these cases.
Jack Valero is the press officer for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman and a spokesman for Catholic Voices. This article was first published in The Guardian and is republished with permission of the author.