Thursday, 9 September 2010

An appeal to Johann Hari

following his appeal in today's Independent for Catholics to join the anti-Pope protesters.

I want to appeal to Johann (photo), and other columnists in our national press, in the final days before Pope Benedict XVI's visit. I know you are inherently decent people. You are journalists, who value truth, and the search for it, and both the freedom that this requires, and the solemn responsibility that goes with it. You are opposed to reproducing myths without subjecting them to verification; you deplore stories which are baseless, or so distorted that they serve only to obfuscate. You disapprove, surely, of exploiting the trust that readers put in our press to mislead them, or of fobbing them off with ill-informed, superficial, one-sided arguments. Yet over the next week you will continue to deplore this papal visit, cheering on the protesters. It is my conviction that if you impartially review the evidence that articles such as Johann's today have tried to claim as justifying that hostility, you will stand in solidarity with Catholics, and open your eyes and ears to what Pope Benedict has to say.

You begin: "For over 25 years, Ratzinger was personally in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the part of the Vatican responsible for enforcing Catholic canonical law across the world, including on sexual abuse. He is a notorious micro-manager who, it is said, insisted every salient document cross his desk. Hans K√ľng, a former friend of Ratzinger's, says: "No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knew as much about abuse cases as this Pope."

Yet it was not until 2001 that the CDF was put in charge of dealing with the mounting cases of abuse, especially in the English-speaking world. Until then, "policies" on clerical sex abuse, to the extent the Vatican had any, were the responsibility of the Congregation of Bishops. But the big point you ignore is that it was the bishops in their dioceses across the world who were and are responsible for the actions of their priests, and it was the bishops who acted or failed to act against them.

After 2001, following Pope John Paul II's motu proprio of that year, it is true, Cardinal Ratzinger came to know more about abuse cases than anyone else in the Vatican, but it was his task, each Friday, to review the files on abusive priests which, as result of that motu proprio, had to be forwarded to him from the local dioceses -- to ensure that action would be taken. He used to call it his Friday penance, and later referred to the "filth" in the Church. He became very aware of the issue, and put in place a series of reforms, which he has continued as Pope, to ensure that abuse cases could no longer be ignored or shelved by bishops.

You go on: "We know what the methods of the church were during this period. When it was discovered that a child had been raped by a priest, the church swore everybody involved to secrecy, and moved the priest on to another parish. When he raped more children, they too were sworn to secrecy, and he was moved on to another parish ... The church insisted all cases be kept from the police and dealt with by their own "canon" law – which can only "punish" child rapists to prayer or penitence or, on rare occasions, defrocking."

The cardinal error you make  is to conflate the Vatican with the Church present across the world. Do you think the Vatican "micro-manages" 219,655 parishes in hundreds of countries, and decides where its 400,000 priests are sent? Do you imagine that such a management would be possible, even if it were desirable? What you describe -- abusive priests sometimes being sent to other parishes (usually after therapy, which the "experts" of the time recommended) -- was, so often, sadly true; but it was the bishops who made those decisions.

When you say that "the Church insisted all cases be kept from the police and dealt with by their own canon law", are you referring, then, to some instruction from Rome? There is none. Canon law itself directs obedience to civil law. And of one thing I can assure you, because it is spelled out in detail in all the independent reports into clerical abuse  -- notably two most important ones: the US John Jay Criminal Study of 2004, and the recent Murphy Report into Dublin diocese -- it is that the action and penalties clearly spelled out in canon law were almost never implemented. Indeed, the way that canon law went into abeyance in the 1970s-80s (for various reasons which we shall not dwell on here) is one of the most shocking aspects of the crisis, for it was the Church's own law which demanded that abusive priests face justice; but the path of therapy was time and again preferred.

"Ratzinger was at the heart of this", you say. "He refuses to let any police officer see the Vatican's documentation, even now, but honourable Catholics have leaked some of them anyway." I'm sorry? At the heart of what? And when has he refused police access to Vatican documentation? Why would the police want that access when these are diocesan files, forwarded to the CDF after 2001? Surely the police can just ask the dioceses for them? And of course they have. Time and again. Nobody except lawyers attempting to bring a class action against the Vatican has ever claimed that Rome is "concealing" abuse cases; these are all cases which fall under local civil jurisdictions.

You then go on to give three "examples" to try to demonstrate that Cardinal Ratzinger personally obstructed abuse cases. The first dates back to when he was briefly an archbishop in Germany in the 1980s. The Hullerman case does indeed suggest that  -- typical of the time -- a priest was moved to another parish. But nobody has demonstrated that Archbishop Ratzinger was responsible for that decision. And even if he had been, he was still, then, a diocesan bishop, and your attempt to demonstrate a Rome-directed cover-up is not assisted by mentioning this case.

The two other cases you mention, Kiesle and Murphy, are both from the United States and both do involve Cardinal Ratzinger, then CDF prefect, because they concern laicisation, which was and remains the responsibility of the CDF. In both cases there was a failure speedily to laicise priests who had been guilty of or convicted of abuse (as it happened, in one case, the police prosecuted; in the other, they dropped the case). You draw the quite bizarre conclusion from this that the delay in laicisation enabled these priests to continue abusing. But it is not laicisation which prevents a priest from abusing; it is removal from active ministry.

Removal from active ministry is when a bishop stops a priest from functioning as a priest -- he cannot say Mass, hear Confessions, be a pastor, or administrator of a school, or indeed anything else. Crucially, that act  -- removal from act of ministry -- prevents a priest from abusing. Laicisation is a canonical procedure -- and before you object, let me point out that a state such as the UK has no power to laicise, and that this is purely a canonical process -- which takes from the priest the sacramental power he was given at ordination. The difference between the two should be obvious. The first, which is the task of the bishop, is the crucial act which prevents further abuse. The second, which is the task of Rome, is entirely irrelevant to whether a priest can abuse or not. I hope that's clear. It is rather important.

Now, as it happens, laicisation is an important action for the Church to take against an abusive priest, because it is very painful for a victim to see that his abuser remains a priest, even if he is not acting as one. But back in the 1980s-90s, it was impossible swiftly to laicise a priest, because it involved a lengthy legal process. What is more, at the time there were many priests applying to be laicised because they wished to marry, and there was a major backlog. All the evidence suggests that the letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger "for the good of the Church" was a form letter which was sent to all priests who had applied for laicisation, for whatever reason, effectively saying: go away and think about it.

Cardinal Ratzinger himself can't have been comfortable about this, because in 2001 -- as result of the reforms introduced by John Paul II -- the CDF made use of new guidelines to introduce a fast-track laicisation for priests guilty of abuse. The problem, therefore, of a priest being acted against in every other sphere (ie removed from ministry, prosecuted by police) but remaining a priest, was resolved, and nowadays a speedy defrocking is standard practice. But I repeat, the length of time it used to take to laicise had no bearing on whether a priest was able to abuse. The crucial action was removal from ministry -- a bishop's task.

You say: "In 2001, Ratzinger wrote to every bishop in the world, telling them allegations of abuse must be dealt with 'in absolute secrecy... completely suppressed by perpetual silence'. That year, the Vatican actually lauded Bishop Pierre Pican for refusing to inform the local French police about a paedophile priest, telling him: 'I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration.' The commendation was copied to all bishops."

Let's take this one by one. In 2001 Cardinal Ratzinger updated a document relating to the abuse of sacraments, and especially a particular canonical crime which is entirely unknown in any civil law of any land, namely exploiting the secrecy of the confessional to solicit sexual favours. The document did indeed demand confidentiality, because investigating such an abuse, as you can imagine, is not easy; the confidentiality was imposed not to cover up this abuse, but to act on it -- to enable action, by imposing strict rules of confidentiality to allow allegations to be made and acted on without (until they were proved true) ruining the good names of either the priest or the alleged victim.

But this was an internal procedure relating to an internal crime, one that does not exist in civil law. The document did not say that a victim could or couldn't also go the police with an allegation -- that is a matter for the civil law of that country (and by the way, in some countries paedophilia is a crime, in others not). If you look at the rules governing, say, the disbarring of a dodgy barrister from the Bar Council, you will not find any reference there to going to the police either; these procedures concern a separate jurisdiction. I imagine in the Independent you have guidelines on how to handle staff misdemeanours; some of them may involve crimes, some not; no one claims that your guidelines subvert British law, surely? And if your staff review procedures demand confidentiality, is this a reason to suppose that the Independent is "covering up" crimes which should be put in the hands of the police? I don't think so. 

As to  the letter to Bishop Pican, this was not a letter written by "the Vatican" to the world's bishops; it was a letter to the bishop from the prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, Dario Castrillon Hoyos, whose attitude, I agree, was shocking. When that letter came to light earlier this year, the Vatican's spokesman said, in effect, "you see what we were up against?" More specifically, you see what Cardinal Ratzinger was up against. That letter directly went against the guidelines which the CDF was putting into place that year -- guidelines which, by the way, made it clear that a case of abuse should "normally" (they can't say always: in some countries child abuse is not a crime, in others it is a crime  but not acted on) be reported to the civil authorities. Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos was retired in 2004, leaving the way clearer for Cardinal Ratzinger's necessary reforms.

"Once the evidence of an international conspiracy to cover up abuse became incontrovertible to any reasonable observer", you go on, but there's the rub: there was no international conspiracy, there is none, and any "reasonable observer" that has looked at the facts has reached that easy conclusion, inconvenient as it is for Dan Brown's many fans.

And so you go on -- Belgium was a shocking example of the police overreaching themselves, but let's not dwell there -- to say: "When Ratzinger issued supposedly ground-breaking new rules against paedophilia earlier this year, he put it on a par with... ordaining women as priests."

A mere flick of google would have told you that's nonsense. The only new reason that modifications to the canon law on laicising abusive priests and attempting to ordain a woman were issued in this same category -- a category, by the way, which included much else besides -- was that they both related to the same area of  canon law, to do with abuse of the sacraments. But the Vatican's spokesman made absolutely clear at the time that there was no suggestion whatever that the two were on the same moral level, and he said so, precisely because he knew that people like you would wilfully misinterpret it.

Yes, wilfully. Because you must have known, surely, that that's what Fr Lombardi said, and yet you chose to ignore it. Correct me if I'm wrong. Perhaps you didn't know, and were in a rush.

But you're onto condoms now, because the rest of the article is mere padding. "When he visited Africa in March 2009, he said that condoms 'increase the problem' of HIV/Aids." You leave this statement alone, because it must be so obviously untrue. Yet international Aids experts such as Harvard's Edward Green rushed to agree with him. And here are some more reasons why the Pope is right -- indeed speaks from the knowledge of the Church in Africa, deeply embedded with, and caring for, those afflicted with Aids.

"His defenders say he is simply preaching abstinence outside marriage and monogamy within it, so if people are following his advice they can't contract HIV – but in order to reinforce the first part of his message, he spreads overt lies claiming condoms don't work." Except he doesn't. He says condoms-based programmes are ineffective and can make the problem worse. You go on to suggest -- although you don't actually state it -- that Pope Benedict has suggested that condoms are porous. He has never said this, although a discredited paper by a long-dead Vatican cardinal did try to suggest as much -- and was shot down.

I know that for many liberal, enlightened, rational columnists the kind of crude hatchet-swinging anti-papal polemic you have written makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. It makes you feel better about yourselves to be on a moral crusade against the "immorality" of a Church. But ask yourself this: would the "Nazarene carpenter" -- and thank you, by the way, for introducing Jesus -- be on the side of such visceral, irrational, unfounded loathing? Would he approve the setting aside of truth, reason, evidence, balance? Or would he urge a little research? I expect he would want you to welcome his vicar on earth, and to dare to listen -- respectfully, openly, fearlessly -- for when the Truth might dare to find you.