A few miles outside Rome there is a village called Rignano Flaminio. For more than three years, it has been wracked by accusations of sexual abuse of children. The incidents are alleged to have taken place in a day care center, by three teachers and a television writer. After three years, the criminal investigation hasn’t ascertained any sure facts and the trial has yet to begin. Journalists incline toward the innocence of the accused. But no newspaper today is discussing this case, the most sensational in Italy in the last decade, because the Church has nothing to do with it, and thus it doesn’t make news.
Another memorable case in Italy took place exactly 10 years ago, and this one did involve a priest, Father Giorgio Govoni of the Diocese of Modena, who was greatly loved by his parishioners but accused of child sex abuse in the context of satanic rituals. Father Govoni died of a heart attack not long after being harangued in court by the prosecutor, who asked for a 14-year prison sentence. But he was innocent. A year later, an appeals court found that the entire web of accusations against him was false.
Discerning the truth
These are only two cases among thousands, in Italy as well as in other countries, but they are enough to get an idea of how difficult it is in this field to distinguish truth from lies.
If you look at cases from the 1960s and 1970s, the difficulty grows beyond measure. This is the background against which a theologian named Father Joseph Ratzinger, later archbishop of Munich and cardinal, later prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally Pope Benedict XVI, began to decode this plague of humanity and of the Church called “pedophilia,” love of children.
This is a “love” that in the second half of the 20th century became an object of worship in the fiction masterpiece “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov.
They were the years of “sexual liberation,” of primacy given to sexual instinct. A manifesto signed by French intellectuals — including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Paris student revolutions of 1968 and today a European parliamentarian — went to the point of laying claim to pedophilia as the newest conquest. Even the victims of sexual abuse remained silent. Accusations were rare and poorly received.
The permissive contagion didn’t spare the Catholic Church, including its hierarchy. In the United States, there was a bishop who, with disarming candor, told why he lived an undisciplined life in those years. Upon his resignation from the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting he had sexually abused a student while seminary rector, Bishop Anthony O’Connell said that when it happened in 1975 he felt influenced by the mentality of that time, in which “Masters and Johnson was big” and a “climate of sexual experimenting” prevailed.
Reporting his comments in The New York Times March 9, 2002, was religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, the same one who in those same pages March 25, 2010, accused Cardinal Ratzinger of a “cover-up” from 1996 to 1998 of pedophile acts committed 20 years earlier by a Milwaukee priest named Lawrence Murphy.
This article in The New York Times resounded worldwide, and is emblematic for a number of reasons.
First, and above all, because of its judgment of facts. It properly accompanied its online article with the documents upon which it was based. But those documents also provide the basis for a diametrically opposed interpretation, in which neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor the Vatican authorities end up having any blame. Instead it was the diocese that acted badly. Not to mention the civil authorities, who at that time rejected the accusations as inconsistent — and without receiving the slightest censure today, even in the pages of the most fastidious New York Times.
Further, the article is emblematic in how it assigns roles in the drama. The “good” person is the ex-archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland. That’s not a new role for him. Forced to resign in 2002 after it came to light that he had had an affair with a theology student and paid him $450,000 in exchange for silence, Archbishop Weakland wasn’t pilloried for this in the “liberal” press; in fact, he was treated with great regard, as befit the renowned champion of a progressive Church that he was.
But there’s more. In 2009, Archbishop Weakland published a memoir called “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church. Memoirs of an Archbishop.” It is more than 400 pages of self-defense, in which the adversary and ultimate responsible party — even of the author’s sexual deviations — is Cardinal Ratzinger, in his inquisitorial harshness.
A reverent preface to the book bears the signature of Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, a leading exponent of the “liberal” wing of American Catholicism. And when the book was published, Goodstein wrote a favorable review May 14, 2009, for The New York Times.
All this is to note that the newspaper that carried out the strongest attack on Pope Benedict in these recent weeks is not at all “impartial.” It has an agenda that it does not hide. It is the same agenda of those who, from the vast inventory of pedophilia in the last half century in the world, fish only for those cases which — by date or place — can be bent to Pope Benedict, both as archbishop of Munich and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
But paradoxically, the pedophilia cases aimed like weapons at Cardinal Ratzinger by the world’s media help one understand at least this: that the current pope was truly the leader of a change in the Church’s way of facing this plague.
Until 2001, cases of clerical pedophilia didn’t fall under the Vatican’s purview, but to the local bishops. It was they who frequently covered them up or handled them poorly, accomplices also in the permissive climate described above. If a bishop turned to Rome, it was only when cases dealt with an offense involving the Sacrament of Confession — grave sins reserved to the Holy See. In 1998, to cite an example of primary importance, the accusers and victims of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, denounced him to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and asked for a canonical trial.
As prefect of the Vatican congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger examined one after another of these accusations and perceived the seriousness of the problem. He learned that the bishops didn’t know how to deal with them as they should. In 2001, with full agreement from Pope John Paul II, he ordered that dioceses from that point forward submit all cases of clerical pedophilia to the congregation.
Cardinal Ratzinger also introduced a radical simplification of the procedures. He understood that one couldn’t wait in every case for a civil sentence before starting a Church trial because of the uncertainty and time required. He encouraged investigations that would result in rapid disciplinary actions. In the last 10 years, 60 percent of Catholic priests accused of pedophilia have been sanctioned thus: with an order by Church authority to retire to a private life “of penance and prayer,” and in the most serious cases, stripping of the clerical state.
Once elected pope, Benedict hit two founders of religious congregations, until then seen as untouchable, with this sort of sanction: Father Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Father Maciel.
And when Ireland was revealed as tragically fertile terrain for clerical pedophilia and episcopal obscurity, Pope Benedict grabbed the rudder, tracing, for an entire national Church, a path of penitence and regeneration with his unprecedented and great March 19 pastoral letter to Irish Catholics.
Today it is against this pope that stones are thrown. And from the same tribunal that exalts sexuality as pure instinct, free from every bond, even more so if preached by the Church.
Sandro Magister, a “vaticanista” for www.chiesa.espressonline.it, writes from Rome.