The NYT on the CDF

I suppose you've seen today's front-page story in the New York Times, "Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal." Reporters Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger say that, despite the impression the Vatican has given, the CDF actually had responsibility for sex-abuse cases since 1922.

The Vatican took action only after bishops from English-speaking nations became so concerned about resistance from top church officials that the Vatican convened a secret meeting to hear their complaints an extraordinary example of prelates from across the globe collectively pressing their superiors for reform, and one that had not previously been revealed.And the policy that resulted from that meeting, in contrast to the way it has been described by the Vatican, was not a sharp break with past practices. It was mainly a belated reaffirmation of longstanding church procedures that at least one bishop attending the meeting argued had been ignored for too long, according to church documents and interviews.The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the churchs credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

My impression is that this story does a better job than previous ones in conveying the complexity of church bureaucracy, and the not-necessarily-sinister role that complexity played in allowing this scandal to grow. It's damning, especially in its revision of the "Benedict is the guy who gets it" narrative, but it may also foster a more productive conversation about what sort of reform needs to happen. This characterization seems fair to me: "The Vatican under Benedict is still responding to abuse by priests at its own pace, and it is being besieged by an outside world that wants it to move faster and more decisively." The "outside world" doesn't necessarily know what the Vatican should do, but we want to see some action, now, that reflects the enormity of the problem. But we can't really talk about reform if we don't understand the system we have now. On that level I found the detail in this article helpful. Less helpful, I thought, was the roundup of what else the CDF was focused on under Ratzinger. I'm not sure how much that helps us (or at least the average NYT reader) evaluate what the CDF could and should have been doing to deal with clergy sex abuse. It seems intended to paint a picture of cardinals wasting their time on silly Catholic nonsense (Marian apparitions! Annulments!); something we can boo and hiss.Anyway, go on and read the story -- lots of detail to digest and discuss. What do you think? Helpful, or just discouraging?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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