It is one of the most confounding conundrums faced by anyone in the public spotlight: How to defend without being defensive? How to correct critical details without the appearance of nitpicking? Finally, how to deal with the media – which is the only way most people will come to know of the controversy in question – when that media is in a feeding frenzy?
Let me start with this important caveat. I do not – and no one at the Vatican should – blame the media for the current controversy surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and most especially, the role of Pope Benedict, in his earlier positions of authority, in perpetuating the culture that covered-up that sexual abuse. I will go further and say, thank God for the Boston Globe and National Catholic Reporter and other media outlets that covered the scandal. Otherwise, we might never have had the explosion in Boston which caused the U.S. bishops to get serious and crackdown on pedophilia and set about creating safe environment for children. The bishops had ignored earlier, internal warnings about the nature and extent of the crisis. Only when the Globe sunk its teeth into the story develop the kind of momentum that made it unstoppable. To be clear, the crisis in Catholicism did not begin when the Globe covered the story. The crisis was the on-going cover-up of serial child abusers. The reporting in NCR and the Globe were nothing more than the provocation needed to get the bishops to being the painful surgery of removing the cancer.
That said, as I noted last week, and countless others have since, nobody in the press, not even the New York Times, gets a pass for shoddy reporting. We now know that the priest who served as judicial vicar in Milwaukee in 1996, who was quoted in the story no less, was never even contacted by the reporters. He said yesterday that one of the documents attributed to him is not, in fact, his handwriting and he pointed to several factual inaccuracies in the story. I do not believe the Times’ mistakes are part of a media conspiracy to defame the Pope. I think the Times, like all newspapers, is struggling financially and has cut back on the number of fact-checkers and editors. And, I think that reporters get into frenzies when a large target, like the Pope, and a spicy topic, like a cover-up, collide. Everyone wants to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.
Nonetheless, the Times’ bad reporting leads others to make strong conclusions like this from Andrew Sullivan which are completely wrong: "The current Pope is now found directly responsible for two clear incidents of covering up or ignoring child abuse and rape. As head of the organization that took responsibility for investigating these cases for so long, his complicity in this vast and twisted criminal conspiracy is not in dispute." The "two clear incidents" are not so clear, after all. And, I am guessing that the phrase "as head of the organization…" refers to Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure at the CDF but as the Times failed to grasp, and Sullivan prefers to ignore, CDF did not have responsibility for investigating these claims until 2001. The phrase "for so long" would suggest longer than 2001 to 2005, yes? It is worthwhile reading Sullivan’s essay: His writing has long distinguished itself for his ability to jump from a personal whim to an ontological principle in the twinkling of an eye but this particular essay takes that distinguishing characteristic to an extreme that took my breath away.
What to do? The officials at the Vatican, and the bishops here at home, should make sure that anytime they even come close to the subject of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, they begin with several paragraphs of remorse, abject apologies and statements of a firm purpose of amendment, regarding the sexual abuse itself and the cover-up of that abuse. There is not way to only address the subject of press coverage, or cultural opposition to the Church, or anything else without appearing like pre-2002 bishops, still in denial, still covering-up. The victims need to know that we really do understand that the Church’s wounds here were self-inflicted, that we are not still looking to cast blame on others.
Secondly, to the extent the Vatican can get out front of the story, put out all relevant documents, and let the chips fall where they may, then and only then can we move on. A lawyer friend counsels against this but I believe that too much listening to lawyers about how to respond is one of the principal causes of the cover-up in the first place. The lawyers work for the bishops, and not the other way round, and bishops are charged with moral leadership.
The Vatican must take a course of action. Words are not enough. A news report surfaced that the Holy See is considering a special Synod of Bishops to discuss the protection of children and the culture of clericalism that permitted this cancer to go untreated for so long. That would be huge. Whether during a Synod or on his own authority, the Holy Father should make the Dallas Norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 the universal law of the Church. And, the Pope should accept the resignations of those Irish bishops – and others – who have tendered them.
Finally, although words are not enough, they are important and Pope Benedict has a gift with words that is almost unparalleled. This week especially, when our readings at Mass re-tell the central story of Christianity, the Passion of Christ, there are many ways a preacher can talk about the nature of sin, how the Lord must use sinful men to accomplish His work, but how grace triumphs in the end. The Pope and the bishops have the opportunity to locate the current crisis in the heart of man, in the heart of all men, in the drama of the Cross and the Tomb. They should not be content to criticize the Times from the pulpit. They should preach the Gospel as they have never preached it before.
Michael Sean Winters