Reports of the clerical sexual abuse of the young in Europe — and the gross mishandling of these cases by bishops, including connivance in cover-ups — ignited a media firestorm in late March, including calls for the Pope’s resignation in light of allegations that he was party to reassigning an abusive priest while archbishop of Munich-Freising and that he impeded the disciplining of an abusive Milwaukee priest while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
As is too often the case, agendas other than an honest accounting for the sins, failures, and crimes of the past, and the protection of vulnerable young people in the present and future, were at work here. Enemies of the Church saw an opportunity to discredit Catholic moral teaching by painting the Church as a hypocritical criminal conspiracy of sexual abusers and their enablers. Contingent-fee lawyers smelled an opportunity to try to dig into the Vatican’s resources, having already bled the Church in the United States of billions of dollars. The allegations against the Pope, which were demonstrably false, were undoubtedly made in service of these latter two agendas.
Here are some facts relevant to separating truth from falsehood as this story unfolds.
1. The sexual abuse of the young is a global plague. Portraying the Catholic Church as its epicenter is malicious and false. 40-60% of sexual abuse takes place within families. There were 290,000 reported cases of abuse in public schools in 1991-2000. There were six credible cases of sexual abuse reported in the Catholic Church in the United States in 2009: six, in a Church of some 65,000,000 members. Having learned the lessons of 2002, the Catholic Church in America today is likely the safest environment for children in the country. No institution working with the young — not the public schools, not the teachers unions, not the Scouts — has done as much to face its past failures in this area and to put in place policies to prevent such horrors in the future.
2. Pope Benedict XVI did not impede sanctions against Father Lawrence Murphy, the Milwaukee priest who abused 200 deaf children in his care; the New York Times story of March 25 alleging that is falsified by the legal documents the Times itself provided on its Web site. Then there was the story’s sourcing. For the Times to cite as one of its principal sources the emeritus archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, who notoriously paid hush money to a male lover and who did nothing about Father Murphy for a decade and a half, was bad enough. But to use as a second principal source Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota attorney who has a direct financial interest in the Murphy case and in painting the Vatican as the center of a global conspiracy to protect pedophiles, suggests that the nation’s former newspaper of record has abandoned serious journalistic standards.
3. The charge that the Church threatened sexual abuse whistle-blowers with excommunication is false and malicious, as is the charge that then-Cardinal Ratzinger imposed silence on those who wished to report abusers to civil authorities. There has never been any such prohibition, and the confidentiality about abuse cases invoked in a 2001 Ratzinger letter to the world’s bishops on priests who solicited sex in the confessional was intended to protect the integrity of the sacraments and the Church’s own legal process, and to encourage victims to come forward without fear of public scandal. Under Ratzinger’s leadership, procedures were put in place in Rome to make sanctions against abusers easier to apply.
The Pope’s March 20 letter to the Irish Church made clear that Joseph Ratzinger is determined to clean out what he once described as “filth” in the Church, and determined to bring the Curia along with him in that cleansing. That there is filth to be cleaned up is not in doubt; much of that filth is decades old. There is no credible evidence, however, that the Catholic Church is at the center of the global sexual abuse crisis. Honest journalists will recognize that. So will serious Catholics.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.