Friday, September 10, 2010

Fisking Johann Hari

I'm not usually one for blogging on religion, but a couple of people I follow on twitter saw fit to tweet an article by Johann Hari, and I couldn't decide what astounded me more, his ignorance of Catholicism or his arrogance in attempting to preach to Catholics from that position of ignorance.
It is my conviction that if you review evidence of the suffering he has inflicted on your fellow Catholics, you will stand in solidarity with them - and join the protesters
Well, let's see. I would make a couple of points here - I refer to Damien Thompson's blog entry on a couple of occasions - Thompson of course has a bias due to his Catholic Herald connections, but he would have a better understanding of how the Catholic church works than a self proclaimed atheist (of whom it was once said that he's proof that "you can take the boy out of Govan, but you can't take the Rangers Supporters Club out of the boy" which leads me to conclude that he's not from a Catholic background).

Another more general failing in much analysis of Catholicism and it's administration is the failure to realise that it's organisational structure is not like that of large corporations or public bodies. If the head of GE or BT doesn't like what a senior executive is doing, it's relatively easy to sort out. Bishops act as head of their dioceses, with a reporting line to Rome that would on some organisation charts be represented as a dotted line. It is very hard for the Pope to fire a bishop - while moral pressure can be exerted on a bishop to resign, it's rare for that to happen (this is why many Catholics often complain their bishop is not working in line with what they perceive to be the Pope's leadership on issues - if you really care, you can go through Damien Thompson's blog and look at the debate over the liturgy).

I want to appeal to Britain's Roman Catholics now,...

Well there's always a first time (yes, I know it's a cheap shot).

In the final days before Joseph Ratzinger's state visit begins. I know that you are overwhelmingly decent people. You are opposed to covering up the rape of children. You are opposed to telling Africans that condoms "increase the problem" of HIV/Aids. You are opposed to labelling gay people "evil". The vast majority of you, if you witnessed any of these acts, would be disgusted, and speak out. Yet over the next fortnight, many of you will nonetheless turn out to cheer for a Pope who has unrepentantly done all these things.

A few points here - it may be a distinction without a difference, but the Catholic Church does not teach that gay people are "evil", only that gay sex is. The issue of condoms, AIDS and Africa is not as black and white as Hari cares to depict it (and neither is the response of Catholic agencies on the ground in Africa). There's also precious little evidence -as we'll go into - that Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in covering up the rape of children.

Some people think Ratzinger's critics are holding him responsible for acts that were carried out before he became Pope, simply because he is the head of the institution involved. This is an error. For over 25 years, Ratzinger was personally in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the part of the Vatican responsible for enforcing Catholic canonical law across the world, including on sexual abuse.
Er, no. The body responsible under much of John Paul II's pontificate for enforcing the law on sexual abuse was normally the local bishop, not the Vatican. When the cases did get to the Vatican, it was usually the case that they were handled by the Congregation for Clergy, not the Doctrine of Faith. If Hari had done his research - and read up authors like John Allen on how the Vatican works, he wouldn't be labouring under this delusion. The rules were changed in around 2002 to give the CDF authority over the cases - partly because the then Cardinal Ratzinger (correctly) felt that the local bishops were rather dropping the ball on this one.


He is a notorious micro-manager who, it is said, insisted every salient document cross his desk. Hans K√ľng, a former friend of Ratzinger's, says: "No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knew as much about abuse cases as this Pope."

There is a lot of dispute about the Pope's management style - there's actually a lot of evidence that he over-delegates. Quoting Kung is not a good sign - Kung has been in conflict with the Vatican for over 30 years and is simply not a reliable source on how the Vatican (doesn't) work.

We know what the methods of the church were during this period. When it was discovered that a child had been raped by a priest, the church swore everybody involved to secrecy, and moved the priest on to another parish. When he raped more children, they too were sworn to secrecy, and he was moved on to another parish. And on, and on. Over 10,000 people have come forward to say they were raped as part of this misery-go-round. The church insisted all cases be kept from the police and dealt with by their own "canon" law – which can only "punish" child rapists to prayer or penitence or, on rare occasions, defrocking.

Hari's track record on handling figures is not encouraging - see Tim Worstal's blog for a number of recent examples. I suspect there's some conflating of figures here with the number of victims raped by priests who had already offended with the abuses that went on in a number of institutions - notably in Canada and in Ireland. The problem of course is that one is still too many.

Here are three examples.

In Germany in the early 1980s, Father Peter Hullermann was moved to a diocese run by Ratzinger. He had already been accused of raping three boys. Ratzinger didn't go to the police, instead Hullermann was referred for "counselling". The psychiatrist who saw him, Werner Huth, told the Church unequivocally that he was "untreatable [and] must never be allowed to work with children again". Yet he kept being moved from parish to parish, even after a sex crime conviction in 1986. He was last accused of sexual abuse in 1998.

Cardinal Ratzinger of course moved from Munich to Rome in 1982, so he didn't have direct authority within the Munich archdiocese from that point onwards. Most of the documentation in the Hullermann case suggests that he was allowed into Munich to receive treatment - and Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of this. The decision to put him into a parish was taken by the Vicar General, not Cardinal Ratzinger. What the hell the Archdiocese thought it was doing in allowing Hullermann to remain working after the 1986 conviction is anyone's guess, but it's a little harsh to blame a man who hadn't worked there for five years for the decisions being taken.
In the US in 1985, a group of American bishops wrote to Ratzinger begging him to defrock a priest called Father Stephen Kiesle, who had tied up and molested two young boys in a rectory. Ratzinger refused for years, explaining that he was thinking of the "good of the universal Church" and of the "detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke among the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age" of the priest involved. He was 38. He went on to rape many more children. Think about what Ratzinger's statement reveals. Ratzinger thinks the "good of the universal Church" – your church – lies not in protecting your children from being raped, but in protecting the rapists from punishment.

A couple of points here about the Kiesle case which Hari doesn't mention - either because he's not aware of it or because it doesn't suit his polemic - Kiesle already had a criminal conviction for the crime referred to. Kiesle was already suspended from active ministry by his bishop. Hari also misrepresents the circumstances of the laicisation request - it came from Kiesle himself - apparently to get married (in other words, he was looking for permission to marry within the church). It could equally be argued that 'Ratzinger thinks the "good of the universal Church" lies' in not effectively rewarding child rapists with a church wedding they were otherwise not entitled to.

Finally, the further allegations of assault on children came fifteen years after Kiesle was laicised. Damien Thompson has more on the details of the case here, but Hari's reading of the case seems to be based on the inital reports without looking any further into the details. It could also do with looking at the context of the laicisation process in the 1980s as well, but as he can't see the difference between an application to be laicised and "de-frocking" I doubt he'd able to properly understand it.

In 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee appealed to Ratzinger to defrock Father Lawrence C Murphy, who had raped and tortured up to 200 deaf and mute children at a Catholic boarding school. His rapes often began in the confessional. Ratzinger never replied. Eight months later, there was a secret canonical "trial" – but Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he was ill, so it was cancelled. Ratzinger advised him to take a "spiritual retreat". He died years later, unpunished.

The Murphy case is another case where inaccurate reporting in the early stages seems to dominate the story - especially as spun by the Protest the Pope crowd. Some of the facts missing from the above paragraph - Murphy's crimes took place between 1950 and 1974. The relevant Archbishop had been in situ for some time (and later had to resign in his own personal scandal when it was revealed he had lent a male lover diocesan funds) - so there's some question over his own competence when dealing with these cases (it's also alleged that he was not particularly sympathetic to other allegations of abuse in his diocese). The relevant canonical process was not cancelled, but was still underway when Murphy died in 1998 - two years, which is not what was implied by the paragraph. Incidentally - the case was only even able to be tried because of the confessional element - in terms of both Wisconsin criminal law and Catholic Canon Law the statute of limitations had kicked for the sex crimes themselves. Again, more detail here.

These are only the cases that have leaked out. Who knows what remains in the closed files? In 2001, Ratzinger wrote to every bishop in the world, telling them allegations of abuse must be dealt with "in absolute secrecy... completely suppressed by perpetual silence".

The subtle implication here is that Ratzinger's letter in 2001 forbade bishops to get the local police involved. This is quite simply a lie. Guidelines laid down by the US bishops, the English bishops and at least in the Archdiocese of Dublin during the 1990s made getting the civil authorities involved a mandatory part of the process. None of the bishops took the letter as meaning those processes should change.
...the Vatican actually lauded Bishop Pierre Pican for refusing to inform the local French police about a paedophile priest, telling him: "I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration." The commendation was copied to all bishops.

Er, no. A Vatican offical - albeit a very senior one - did that, not "the Vatican" (Hari again falls into the error of assuming the Vatican works as one mind. It's a collection of human beings, not the Borg collective). It was a strange thing to do - and only really acceptable if the reason the bishop failed to inform the police was that he himself only learned about it when hearing the priest's confession - which has been suggested by some. There is however no indication that the letter was approved by the current Pope (which would be fine if he was simply railing about the Church's handling of the cases in general - but Hari has personalised the issue in this piece).

When Ratzinger issued supposedly ground-breaking new rules against paedophilia earlier this year, he put it on a par with... ordaining women as priests.

No, he didn't. The Vatican's press department rather screwed up on this one - they did a clean up of canon law and process in a number of areas that it was felt needed clarification, and then released them all at one go. Fr Lombardi even said at the press conference they weren't equating the two. In PR terms, it was a stupid thing to do, precisely because people like Hari would make the claim above.

In short Hari's article is long on rhetoric, short on dispassionate analysis of what actually happened. This is not exactly unusual for him. I appreciate he's never likely to be a huge fan of the current pope - and at the end of the article he does manage to make a couple of half decent points, but he ruins the effect by making no attempt to understand how the Catholic Church works or to look into the cases past the initual reporting which sensationalised the cases into something they weren't (namely the "smoking gun" that tied the Pope to cover ups).

During my teenage years I had a number of encounters with Sean Fortune - one of the more notorious priest abusers in Ireland. I count myself fortunate I was not one of his victims - something I may blog about later. I am angry at the actions of the bishop whose inactions allowed me to be put in that risky situation (Fortune already had form at that point) - but that bishop wasn't Cardinal Ratzinger.

To be clear, I am not denying there were failings - at both the local and at the Vatican level - to get to grips with the problem. There are countless explanations for this, but the reality is there's little excuse for a lot of what happened. Cardinal Ratzinger appears to have been one of the first senior Vatican officials to fully get the extent of the problem, and his response to centralise the administration of the cases was to some extent a reversal of some of the Vatican II reforms. It is a tragedy it took so long, but there's a long distance from incompetence to international conspiracy to cover up.

One final point - there was a lot of comment when the Pope was elected that he wanted a purer church - even if it was smaller. His role at the CDF would seem to support that suggestion. Cardinal Ratzinger was also quoted as saying it was time to get rid of the "filth" from the church - he then backed that up by fairly quickly pushing Fr Maciel into contemplative retirement once he became Pope - despite Maciel having powerful friends in Rome. It does appear that on the abuse issue at least he is devoting more time to actions than perhaps he is to words.

UPDATE: made a few minor corrections of spelling and sentence structure - the perils of blogging at 2am.

Also worth noting that Catholic Voices responded much better than I did.





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