19 September 2010

Notes on the Papal Visit 3: Sex Abuse and Supposed Vatican Cover-Up

What then of the whole abuse issue? Well, firstly, it was absolutely monstrous, it happened, and it presumably is still happening although nowhere near on the scale it was about thirty years ago. The jury is still out on whether it was more prevalent in the Catholic Church than among ministers of other religions or indeed among society in general, though all the statistical evidence that's been so far collected suggests that this was not the case.

(The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report, from 2002, which suggested that one in four Irish adults  - roughly 700 people from a sample of about 3000 - had been sexually abused in one way or another when they were children or teenagers, found that only one in sixty of those - 12 out of the more than 700 confirmed survivors, had been abused by religious ministers of any denomination.)

In connection with how the Pope is regularly attacked over this, complaints about abuse were indeed spectacularly mishandled by people who had the job of dealing with it. Why they did this is difficult to ascertain, but there seem to have been a range of reasons and I think it's foolish and simplistic to seek a holistic explanation, unifying all the factors. The 2009 Murphy Report, analysing how complaints were handled in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004, singled such contributory factors as a determination to avoid scandal, an excessive degree of clericalism both within the Church hierarchy and in society at large, a tendency to downplay the significance of abuse, a belief that abusive priests were ill and in need of treatment more than punishment, and a post-Vatican II unwillingness to apply the Church's own internal disciplinary mechanisms.

The questions are, though, was Benedict in any way personally responsible for this and was there a centrally-mandated cover-up conspiracy in Rome? People who call him a criminal really ought to do some research into this before hurling around libels like that.

Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian back in March, had this latter point spot on: there was no Vatican cover-up, but there were hundreds of little local ones that grew naturally out of clerical culture. Brown's article is particularly depressing, especially as he notes that the worst period by far for clerical sexual abuse in America - 1978 to 1983 - was a period during which not one complaint of abuse received by American bishops was referred to Rome. The significance of this, he rightly points out, lies in how bishops tended to hide the truth from Rome. The good news is that this means Rome is probably innocent of coordinating a grand global conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse around the world, but the bad news is that it didn't need to, as it happened anyway, which means that we can expect more horror stories in the years to come and it's going to be very hard to solve things.

But what about the then Cardinal Ratzinger's famous 2001 letter in which he demanded that all abuse allegations should be passed on to him, insisting on absolute secrecy and a refusal to cooperate with the civil authorities wherever the abuse took place. If you've heard this you've just heard typical media nonsense, possibly converted into an anti-Catholic diatribe.

And yes, 'media nonsense' is a fair way of describing this kind of stuff. John Allen, who seems to be by far the best Vatican journalist in the world, recently listed a few typical instances of how the mainstream media invariably gets this stuff wrong.

There was a 2001 letter, sure, directed to the bishops who Benedict feared had indeed made a complete mess of things, and taking these matters out of their incompetent - and in some cases arrogant and even corrupt - hands. It was designed to ensure that abuse allegations were dealt with properly, as they all too often had not been, and it helped abuse victims and justice in general by greatly extending the time limits for bringing complaints. The Church's internal handling of these matters indeed involved confidentiality, largely because of the basic principle that people should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, but the 2001 document  in no way precluded bishops or victims from going to the police. It didn't direct them to do so, but it most certainly didn't bar them from doing so.

And what of the specific instances where Benedict supposedly obstructed the course of justice and engaged in cover-ups himself, whether as Archbishop of Munich or as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? A few such stories hit the headlines earlier in the year, but none of them had legs once genuine investigation took place. Unfortunately, the papers which screamed about Benedict's guilt when the story's initially broke tended not to publish equally prominent articles retracting their claims. I'm not sure of the order the stories broke in, but just in order of how I learned of them...

The first concerns the then Archbishop of Munich's 1980 decision to allow a priest, one Peter Hullermann, who years later was convicted of molesting boys, to move to his archdiocese to undergo therapy for paedophilic tendencies. Weeks after his therapy began, one of the then archbishop's deputies approved Father Hullermann's return to pastoral duties. Was the then Archbishop Ratzinger at fault? The question concerns what he knew, of course, and there's no evidence that he knew of anything other than the initial decision to allow Hullermann to live in the archdiocese, without pastoral involvement, while undergoing therapy. Father Gerhard Gruber, the then Vicar General of the diocese, has repeatedly stated that the decision to allow Hullermann to return to duty was his and something the then archbishop had not been involved in; given how big the diocese was, and how priests in it at the time found Ratzinger to be rather remote and uninvolved with what went on, this seems likely to be true.

(The Murphy Report, for what it's worth, noted the widespread tendency back then to think of paedophilia and ephebophilia as conditions that could be treated, and the belief that therapy was the best solution; it specifically says, in a document that otherwise damns the Irish Church, that this was a reasonable approach, provided that the person undergoing therapy wasn't at liberty to reoffend. That the then Archbishop Ratzinger agreed to allow an abusive priest into his diocese for therapy seems something that can't reasonably be objected to, and there's no evidence that he was responsible for his subordinate's decision to allow said priest back into any sort of ministry.)

A second story concerned a retired priest in Wisconsin, one Father Lawrence Murphy, who admitted to having abused nineteen boys but who it has been speculated may have abused as many two hundred deaf children, and who the then Cardinal Ratzinger supposedly protected and refused to laicise. As ever the story is more complicated than meets the eye, but the clear facts are as follows.

Murphy was guilty of numerous instances of sexual abuse between 1950 and 1974, though the figure of 200 is purely speculative. Complaints were made to the police and the diocese, but the police declined to prosecute or to do anything about the matter; feeling there were grounds for the complaints, the Church eventually removed Murphy from ministry anyway. He lived in seclusion at home for about twenty years, with no further complaints being made about him. In 1996, with some of Murphy's victims bravely continuing to pursue the matter, the affair was finally referred to Rome by Murphy's bishop. Three months later, under instructions from Cardinal Bertone in Rome, a canonical trial started to get underway, and numerous interviews were conducted with Murphy's victims. In 1998 Murphy was ordered to give a deposition himself, but his doctor wrote to say that he could not travel as he was ill. A week later he died.

There's no reason to believe that the then Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in the affair in any regard, and it was only sloppy journalism - marked by an apparent desire to smear the Pope - that generated the impression that he had been.

Teta and Trupio
The third related story two priests in Arizona,  Michael Teta and Robert Trupia, both of whom were removed from ministry as soon as allegations about them came to light.

The case against Teta solely concerned his abusing the confessional to solicit sex from adult males - the sole allegation concerning abuse of children went to court and was thrown out as clearly false. The subsequent canonical trials - because solicitation is regarded as a serious crime in the Church - continued for years, with a lengthy appeal following, so that more than a decade passed before Teta was dismissed from the clerical state. Rome was only involved in the Teta process in three respects: at the start, when its permission was sought for the trial to begin; during the trial, urging the diocese to expedite the process; and during the appeal, when the diocese asked from Rome's help in expediting the process.

As early as 1975, soon after his ordination, there were serious allegations made about Trupia molesting boys, but they were never passed on to Rome in any sense. In 1989 the police expressed concerns, but again, nothing came of this. It looks very likely that the diocese covered up for Trupia's actions, for whatever reason, but they certainly were never passed on to Rome. A fresh complaint in 1992 concerning abuse that had taken place in 1981 led to Trupia being confronted and admitting what he had done; he was suspended from ministry and  barred from presenting himself as a priest. Then began the lengthy process of canonical trials and appeals, which was clearly a bureaucratic mess, but during which children were not endangered, as the key step - according to the Murphy Report - of removal from ministry had already been taken. In 2001 responsibility for handling matters such as this in Rome was taken over by the then Cardinal Ratzinger's CDF, and work started on the thousands of cases that came in from around the world. In 2003, Trupia's bishop personally raised the matter with the CDF, and Trupia was dismissed from the clerical state the following year. Early in this process, the police were informed in Arizona, though criminal cases came to nothing; civil lawsuits brought some justice to Trupia's victims though I gather Trupia is at liberty nowadays.

In any case, what these stories clearly show, in connection with the Pope, is that he was in no way responsible for allowing either Teta or Trupia to have abused anyone, and indeed his involvement simply consists of his having pushed through the final decisions to laicise both men.

The last of these stories concerned how the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 supposedly refused to punish one Father Stephen Kiesle, a Californian priest who a Californian court convicted of child molestation in 1978. Kiesle's diocese responded to this by withdrawing permission for him to remain in ministry, and in 1981 he asked to be laicised, which meant that he asked to be allowed withdraw from the obligations of the clerical state, including celibacy and the duty to obey his bishop.

Dismissal from the clerical state can take place within the Church as a punishment, but it is only granted to priests who request it if they're in good standing with the Church. Kiesle, obviously, wasn't in good standing, and so Rome was in no hurry to grant his request. The then Cardinal Ratzinger signed a form letter in 1985, saying that the matter needed further consideration, and two years later Kiesle's wish was granted. The key thing here is that the abuse case was never sent to Rome, and there was never any question of Benedict refusing to punish an abusive priest; if anything, he was reluctant to reward one.

Just one more piece. Tomorrow, so.

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