By Greg Erlandson
It would probably be too much to ask that Time magazine run a cover story on the bold statements and concrete actions that Pope Benedict XVI has taken to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis. No self-respecting journalistic enterprise wants to be separated from the pack when it comes to covering a controversial news story, which means it must always follow the herd, even when the evidence points elsewhere.
But Time’s June 7 story is a particularly frustrating example of a media enterprise playing to prejudices with half-truths even to the point of severely misrepresenting the story.
“Why Being Pope Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry: The sex abuse scandal and the limits of atonement” is the provocative headline splashed across the cover of Time and over an image of the back of the pope’s mitered head.
Lest we have any doubts where this is heading, the lead sentence of the story manages to drag in the Inquisition: “How do you atone for something terrible, like the Inquisition?”
The gist of the story is that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wasn’t so hot on apologizing for the Inquisition in 2000, and he isn’t really doing enough to apologize for the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Time wants the pope to offer a personal mea culpa, particularly for his handling of a case when he was archbishop of Munich (in which he allowed an abuser priest to be sent to his archdiocese for treatment), and more generally for the fact that he “was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the Church in the past half-century.”
The story, written by Jeff Israely (reporting from Rome) and Howard Chua-Eoan, while appearing to be about the sexual abuse crisis, is really a subtly written assault on the papacy itself, making the following case:
The provocative headline of the article makes more sense in this narrative because it yokes the claim of infallibility to the crisis, making the papacy the center of the abuse story.
The fact that the pope has apologized repeatedly thus becomes irrelevant for Time — despite the obvious contradiction of the headline — because, it seems to suggest, the apologies are just a public-relations strategy to head off a greater challenge.
In laying out this political analysis of the last 200 years of Church history, the article also serves to bolster the case of those lawyers seeking damages from the Vatican for sexual abuse cases that occurred in the United States. If the Vatican was so centralized and domineering, according to this reading of history, the question of its liability for the handling of individual local cases becomes more plausible.
Thus, after recounting the many positive steps the pope has taken, Time still concludes that he is hedging: “He assigned wrongdoing not to the Church but to its servants.” This, the magazine suggests, is to protect the Church from legal liability. “The consequences of sin are subject to divine salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public humiliation and the loss of property.”
Time quotes an Irish theologian: “This very centralized church [tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case since the end of the 19th century.” Here it ties everything back to the First Vatican Council and its statement on papal infallibility. In keeping with the heavy editorializing of the entire story, it sums up Vatican I as a “stage-managed” council that used a “suspect majority of bishops” to approve infallibility, thus allowing the Roman Curia to become “ever more centralized and domineering.”
The article dismisses “a purportedly impromptu crowd of 150,000 people” who showed up to cheer the pope one Sunday (although no one claims it was impromptu), but treats sympathetically plans for a “Reformation Day” in October being organized by victims of clergy sexual abuse too “pressure the Vatican to act” and to “take back” the Church.
The story gets so many details wrong that defenders of Pope Benedict in some ways don’t know where to start. Infallibility has nothing to do with the story of sexual abuse. The centralization of authority is more stereotype than truth, as witnessed by the diversity of Catholic voices, the independent actions of many bishops, the rise of the national bishops’ conferences and on and on. If anything, what is frustrating to many Catholics and puzzling to non-Catholics, both of whom can hold a simplistic view of papal authority, is that the pope cannot just rule by arbitrary decree. (It is ironic that this same misunderstanding permeates the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and the struggle with Nazism.)
The real story is this:
Mistakes have been made. Grievous mistakes. Mistakes were made by bishops, by priests, by psychiatrists and police and judges and, yes, even by well-intentioned and grief-stricken relatives. The cost of these mistakes is very high, and the Church will have to pay these costs.
But efforts to make Pope Benedict part of the problem rather than part of the solution would be an even bigger mistake, for it is he who is providing real leadership on this issue. It is Pope Benedict who is refusing to circle the wagons and who understands the spiritual as well as the canonical and civil issues at stake. It is Pope Benedict who is championing the reform and renewal that the scandals demand.
Greg Erlandson, OSV president and publisher, is co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (OSV, $12.95).
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