Mea culpa?

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Behind closed doors, an angry Pope protests his innocence. But critics say the evidence is damning. Gemma O’Doherty reports

Saturday 23 July 2011


It was Good Friday in 2005, and pilgrims were making their way by candlelight through the Stations of the Cross in Rome. Across the murky waters of the River Tiber, Pope John Paul II lay dying in his private chapel, struggling for breath as he watched the Easter vigil by video link.

Prayers for the ceremony had been written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the hardline Bavarian academic who would replace him in the Vatican one month later.

As the faithful ventured through the flickering glow of the Colosseum, the contemplative sermon took an unexpected twist, sending shudders through the world’s tiniest state.

“How much filth there is in the Church,” the Cardinal decried, “and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him.”

It was a direct and cutting attack on clerics involved in the sexual abuse of children, the first of its kind issued by a member of the Vatican hierarchy.

For the previous 24 years, the future pontiff had presided over the office which handles allegations of abuse for the Catholic Church, the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Letters of complaint would stream into the office from parishes around the world detailing the grotesque crimes of paedophile priests against the youngest members of their congregations. Nobody in Rome had more knowledge of the severity and scale of these heinous acts than him.

So, when white smoke poured from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on April 19, 2005 to announce the election of the first German pope since the 11th century, Benedict XVI knew better than anyone that his years in office would be gripped by revelations of an epic scandal perpetrated by the largest religious organisation in the world.

This week, as the Irish Government continued its groundbreaking war of words against the Vatican with Enda Kenny’s scathing attack on Rome, abuse survivors focused their scorn on Benedict, claiming he aided and abetted the cover-up in Ireland during his tenure at the CDF.

Days earlier, the devastating Cloyne Report gave credence to their fury, when it slammed the Vatican’s response in dealing with allegations of sexual exploitation as “entirely unhelpful”.

The 431-page investigation, which examined abuse claims against 19 priests in the Cork diocese between 1996 and 2009, pointed to a letter sent to Irish bishops by the Papal Nuncio in 1997, in which he stated that their new document on child protection appeared to go against canon law.

But in recent days, on the gilded corridors of the pontiff’s private quarters, the mood has been one of surprise and disappointment that the finger of blame is being pointed in his direction.

Vatican insiders tell of frustrated rumblings from the cloistered walls of the papal apartment that the accusations against him are misguided, unfounded and unjust.

They say the Pope is adamant that advice from Rome to Irish bishops in 1997 could never be construed as an invitation to conceal abuse and that Benedict feels he has done more than any of his predecessors to tackle the abuse crisis head-on and with “absolute transparency”.

He is also thought to be particularly aggrieved that such a groundswell of anger against him has come from Ireland, a country to which he made a landmark personal apology in March of last year.

In the unprecedented eight-page letter, which broke Vatican taboos, he rebuked the Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgement” and acknowledged that people would “find it difficult to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred”.

“In her name,” he wrote, “I openly express the shame and remorse we all feel.” He also vowed that Irish dioceses would be visited by teams of inspectors to ensure that new rules laid down by Rome to weed out paedophile priests were being tightly followed.

But critics of the pontiff say his words of atonement were too little, too late, and that whatever action he has taken as Pope, he cannot escape his past and his failure to deal with the damning evidence that landed on his desk when he was head of the church’s doctrinal enforcement office.

They point to a confidential letter he sent to bishops in 2001, in which he said abuse cases should be investigated under the utmost secrecy within the church to avoid public hysteria and media attention.

Last year, another letter came to light, signed by Ratzinger in 1985 in which he resisted the defrocking of US priest Stephen Kiesle, a convicted sex offender, and urged that it was necessary to consider the “good of the Universal Church”.

He is also accused of ignoring complaints about Fr Lawrence Murphy, a dying priest who was suspected of molesting some 200 boys in Wisconsin.

Last year, the Pope accepted the resignation of Archbishop John Magee, who served as private secretary to three popes, and was the subject of scathing criticism in the Cloyne Report for taking minimal action against paedophile priests.

But the pontiff’s delay when it came to signing off on four others bishops who sheltered paedophile priests caused outrage at the time.

Yet opinion is divided as to whether Benedict himself played an active part in the Irish abuse cover-up?

“Of course he did,” says Colm O’Gorman, who was sexually abused by paedophile predator Fr Sean Fortune in Ferns, Co Wexford, and who founded the One in Four survivor support group.

“He headed the Vatican department that was responsible for managing all cases of child abuse worldwide. In the mid-1980s, parishioners in Ferns wrote to the Papal Nuncio expressing concerns about Sean Fortune.

“We know that church authorities were aware that Fortune had abused children even before he was ordained. The Ferns report established that. He abused a group of boy scouts as a seminarian in St Peter’s College.

“That was reported to the church authorities and the scouting organisation. The scouts barred him for life. The Church ordained him a priest. There is no definitive proof of a communication about Sean Fortune from the diocese to Ratzinger’s office but one would expect that he did know.”

Yet others believe Ireland’s shocking legacy of clerical crimes against children was of its own making.

“It’s easy to push the blame back to Rome because the Vatican is so unpopular but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it was in bishops’ palaces from Cobh to Drumcondra where all of these decisions and mistakes were made,” says Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic.

“I am just amazed to hear Irish bishops saying they didn’t know they had to report abuse to the civil authorities. Why the hell anyone needed Rome’s permission to report crimes to the gardai is just beyond me.

“At the moment, Irish bishops are trying to suggest that this is all Rome’s fault, but I have never seen any evidence of that. Take, for example, the 1996 guidelines on child protection. The Irish bishops claim they sent them to Rome for approval and didn’t get it, so therefore they couldn’t do anything about them.

“A similar situation arose in the US in 2002 when American bishops prepared norms, sent them to Rome for approval and Rome said they did not conform with canon law and wouldn’t approve them.

“Within about two or three days, all the American cardinals and the president of the bishops’ conference had gone gung-ho to Rome and within a week they had thrashed out an agreement with the Vatican, whereby it would approve of the norms within a couple of weeks.

“Our guys never did that. They just threw in the towel.

“The idea that all complaints were sent to Rome from 2001 is not true. We know of one allegation that Bishop Magee found out about in the late 1990s but he didn’t report it until 2008.

“Joseph Ratzinger probably did more than anybody else in the Vatican to try to get a grip on this. He has named the thing for what it is, has met countless victims, and has been forthright in his apologies.

“He is getting a raw deal based on a mess he is trying to clear up that was not of his creation.”

Jesuit priest Fr Thomas Reese, an American liberal who lectures at Georgetown University, Washington, and is author of Inside the Vatican, is of the same mind.

“Is Benedict perfect? No. Is he better than anyone else in the Vatican? Yes.

“He was willing to listen to the American bishops and be educated about child abuse and helped convince John Paul that things had to change and the Vatican had to do better in dealing with the problem.

“As prefect of the CDF, he was the guy who signed the papers throwing these priests out of the priesthood. He was the one who was given authority to do that finally in the Vatican with procedures that basically ignored canon law and imposed martial law.

“He eliminated many of the due process procedures that the church had insisted on before so that these people could be thrown out of the priesthood rapidly without trial.

“I think he is sincere. I think he is disgusted by what happened to these people.

“Did he want their stories broadcast all over the news? Of course not. But he certainly wants to make sure that these priests are removed from ministry and no child is ever abused again.”

But for those who believe the buck must stop with the top man, Pope Benedict XVI has a tarnished past which he must take responsibility for now.

“Joseph Ratzinger knew of every case that was reported to the Vatican,” says Patrick Wall, a former priest who is one of the Vatican’s most tireless opponents and has consulted on more than 1,000 abuse cases from his law firm Manly and Steward in southern California.

“There is no escaping that. If there was one person who could have stood up and said this is a worldwide problem, he was the one. But he remained compliant to what John Paul II said and wanted done.

“As a priest in the 1990s, I sent horrendous cases over to him in Rome but he specifically slowed them down.

“Look at the case of Sean Fortune. That’s a classic case of where Rome failed because they all had knowledge along the way.

“Whether it’s News International or the Vatican, the guy at the top has to take responsibility sooner or later.”

Originally published in

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