Douthat’s Defense of the Vatican
Douthat defends the Pope against his critics in his column today. Here’s the gist of it:
In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church’s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel’s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.
As for the most recent revelations about Ratzinger’s dilatory response to the request to defrock a California priest who had a habit of tying up and molesting children in Church rectories, Douthat demurs:
The more recent smoking guns, though, offer more smoke than fire. The pope is now being criticized not for enabling crimes or covering them up, but because in the 1980s and 1990s the Vatican’s bureaucracy moved slowly on requests to formally laicize abusive priests after they had already been removed from ministry.
Douthat seems to miss the point about the latest revelations. The issue is not (or, I should say, not just) that the future Pope took his time responding to the request to defrock Fr. Kiesle. That is, in part, the issue. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the Vatican is capable of moving (even to excommunicate bishops) very quickly when the theological implications of failing to do so are sufficiently significant to decisionmakers.
The more salient issue in the Kiesle case seems to be that, when he did respond, Ratzinger’s words made clear that he was more concerned with the implications of the defrocking for the image of the Church (particularly the shortage of vocations) than for the well-being of Fr. Kiesle’s victims:
In the November 1985 letter, Ratzinger says the arguments for removing Kiesle were of “grave significance” but added that such actions required very careful review and more time. He also urged the bishop to provide Kiesle with “as much paternal care as possible” while awaiting the decision, according to a translation for AP by Professor Thomas Habinek, chairman of the University of Southern California Classics Department. . . . The future pope also noted that any decision to defrock Kiesle must take into account the “good of the universal church” and the “detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly considering the young age [of the priest].” Kiesle was 38 at the time.
Finally, I have never found the 2001 centralization of these cases in the Vatican to cut one way or the other in assessing Ratzinger’s role in all of this. As Douthat correctly notes, Ratzinger is a great administrator. Centralizing all of these cases in the Vatican was, administratively speaking, a wise move that ensured greater Vatican control over a crisis that was, by 2001, clearly an institutional threat. But whether that move means that Ratzinger took child abuse — as such — more seriously than his predecessors can only be proved by looking to the actual disposition of the cases handled by the Vatican, not by the decision to centralize. That sort of assessment has yet to be undertaken, but this is, to my mind, a situation where substance matters much more than process. And that is why the 1985 Kiesle letter deserves the attention it is receiving. The letter has the potential of offering a brief glimpse into the thinking of the current Pope on substantive issue — the perceived significance of child abuse (at least as compared to other institutional considerations) — in a situation where there was no question of the priest’s guilt and years before the problem was clearly identified as an institutional threat requiring the attention of Ratzinger’s considerable bureaucratic talents.