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Christopher Hitchens and the Days of Rage

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By:Tom Piatak | April 09, 2010

On March 23, the Associated Press published a story dealing with sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church to little fanfare. It noted that allegations of sexual abuse involving the Catholic Church in the United States dropped in 2009, and that most of the alleged offenders “are dead, no longer in the priesthood, removed from ministry, or missing.” The article also noted that “Of the allegations reported in 2009, six involved children under the age of 18 in 2009.” It is easy to see why this story was not front page news in the New York Times: it is hard to use such numbers to convince the public to demand the resignation of Benedict XVI.

That, of course, is the object of the recent media campaign against the Pope, one that has seen everyone with an axe to grind against the Catholic Church clamber on board. Richard Dawkins, writing on the Washington Post website, described Benedict as “A leering old villain in a frock,” the leader of a “profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution,” one that is destined to tumble about Benedict’s ears, “amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins.” One wonders if the Post or the Times ever published similar condemnations of the Soviet Union, let alone such a description of any non-Christian religion. Dawkins declined to tell those lapping up his purple prose that, in 2006, he had written that “we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia” and that “All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affection for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defense, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).” Dawkins even wrote that “I can’t help wondering if [the Catholic Church] has been unfairly demonized over this issue.”

Dawkins’ fellow atheist and close ideological ally Christopher Hitchens has never expressed any such doubts about the perfidy of the Catholic Church. Hitchens, after all, opposed John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court, in essence, because Roberts is Catholic, has said of Mother Teresa that “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to,” and recently described Thomas More as “one of history’s wickedest men.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Hitchens devoted three successive columns to attacking the Pope. To Hitchens, Benedict is cut from the same cloth as Mother Teresa and Thomas More. He is a “grisly little man,” whose “whole career has the stench of evil.” But Hitchens’ case against the Pope, relying on the reporting of the Times and Hitchens’ own flights of fancy, falls short.

In his first column, Hitchens charges that while Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he was involved in “obstructing justice on a global scale,” and quotes from a document issued by that Congregation. However, as Sean Murphy points out at the Catholic Education Resource Center, the document Hitchens quotes was issued in 1962, when Ratzinger was still a priest in Bavaria: traveling through time to commit evil is quite a trick, even for a villain of Ratzinger’s magnitude. Moreover, canon lawyer Tom Doyle, quoted as an expert by Hitchens in the column, had this to say about the documents issued by that Congregation governing sexual abuse by priests: “It is not correct to state that the popes under whose authority any of these were published were either creating a blue-print for a cover-up or mandating a church-wide cover up of clergy sexual abuse.” Doyle also noted that “It is also incorrect to use these documents to accuse any of the personnel charged with administering the Church court, such as the Prefects of the Vatican Congregations, with a cover-up in a conventional sense.” Indeed, as John Allen noted in the generally liberal National Catholic Reporter, once Ratzinger reviewed all the files on priestly sexual abuse that made their way to the Congregation after his office was given oversight of such cases in 2001, he “seems to have undergone something of a ‘conversion experience,’” and “the substantial majority” of those cases “were returned to the local bishop authorizing immediate action against the accused priest—no canonical trial, no lengthy process, just swift removal from the ministry and, often, expulsion from the priesthood.” Hitchens also charges that a document Ratzinger issued in 2001 “wrote its own private statute of limitations” for canonical claims against abusive priests, running for ten years from a victim’s 18th birthday, and cites an attorney suing the Church in Texas characterizing this as an obstruction of justice. Hitchens neglects to mention that the State of Texas is apparently an accomplice to this obstruction, since the statute of limitations for rape in Texas is—you guessed it—ten years.

As Scott Richert ably explained at his blog at About.com, the horrific case of Fr. Murphy, trumpeted by the New York Times and seized upon by Hitchens, is a red herring, twisted to blame then Cardinal Ratzinger for Murphy’s monstrous abuse, which had stopped 22 years before Murphy’s case was referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by the Archbishop of Milwaukee. There is no evidence in the Times story that Joseph Ratzinger had any personal involvement in that case, and in any event the Congregation waived the statute of limitations for the crime of solicitation in the confessional so that a canonical trial against Murphy could proceed. (There could have been no criminal trial of Murphy at that point, since the Wisconsin statute of limitations had long since run and, indeed, police and prosecutors in Wisconsin had failed to take action against Murphy in the 1970’s, when Murphy’s crimes were reported to them.) The Archbishop of Milwaukee abated the canonical trial against Murphy two days before he died, but also began the process of removing Murphy from ministry, a quicker process than a canonical trial. In Hitchens’ retelling, Ratzinger, described as “a cardinal in Rome, supervising the global Catholic cover-up of rape and torture,” made “no response” to Milwaukee’s request for a canonical trial, “until Father Murphy himself appealed to Ratzinger for mercy and was granted it.” Even putting aside Hitchens’ description of Ratzinger as “supervising the global Catholic cover-up of rape and torture,” Hitchens tells three distinct lies in his brief summary of the Times story: Ratzinger’s Congregation did not have jurisdiction over cases of clergy sexual abuse until 2001, and was only involved in the Murphy case because it involved a separate canonical crime, solicitation in the confessional; the Congregation did respond to Milwaukee, by waiving the statute of limitations and allowing a canonical trial to proceed; and Murphy was not granted “mercy,” much less by Ratzinger, unless beginning the process to remove a priest from ministry constitutes “mercy.” (In Hitchens’ defense, it should be noted that his retelling of the Murphy case is less lurid than that of the Times own Maureen Dowd, who, as Pat Buchanan notes, wrote that Ratzinger “ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy,” implying that Ratzinger failed to take action when Murphy was actively engaged in abuse.)

The Times and Hitchens also make much of the transfer of an abusive priest from Essen, Father Hullermann, to Munich for psychiatric therapy in January 1980, when Ratzinger was Archbishop there. Hullermann later abused other teenage boys while working in the Archdiocese of Munich, at a parish assignment he received seven months after Joseph Ratzinger left Munich for Rome. There is no dispute that Ratzinger approved letting Hullermann reside at a rectory in Munich while undergoing therapy; the dispute concerns what role Ratzinger played in his vicar general’s decision to allow the priest to resume his duties while undergoing therapy. The vicar general has assumed full responsibility for that decision, while the Times notes that “Cardinal Ratzinger’s office” was copied on a memo from the vicar general returning Hullermann to full duties. But from the Times own report it appears that what chancery officials in Munich were told by the official dealing with Essen was that Hullermann needed “medical-psychotherapeutic treatment in Munich” and was “a very talented man, who could be used in a variety of ways.” The fact that this description of Hullermann turned out to be spectacularly wrong does not inculpate those who acted on such advice. And a subsequent Times story showed that even those unconnected to the Church in Germany doubted that Ratzinger knew much about Hullermann, quoting Hannes Burger, who covered the Church for Suddeutsche Zeitung, as saying that Ratzinger “certainly would not have realized anything; he was in a different sphere. He held beautiful sermons and wrote beautifully, but the details he left to his staff” and quoting Andreas Englisch, a German Vaticanist, as saying, “I don’t think he really knew the details; I don’t think he was really interested in the details.” Even the Times reporter noted that “How closely he would have watched personnel decisions, especially with an administrative chief, Vicar General Gerhard Gruber, who had been in his post since 1968, is an open question.” To be sure, Ratzinger bears ultimate responsibility for what happened in Munich during his episcopacy. But there is a difference between Ratzinger’s possibly making a poorly informed or negligent decision on Hullermann and Ratzinger’s “finding another parish with fresh children for the priest to assault” and of making pederast priests his “pets,” as Hitchens charges. Indeed, when Hullermann was convicted by the German courts of sexually abusing minors in 1986, he received a suspended sentence, a fine, and probation conditioned on continued psychiatric treatment, but the probation imposed on Hullermann does not appear to have restricted Hullermann from working as a priest. Hullermann’s sentence shows that Catholic bishops were far from the only ones in the 1980’s who regarded psychiatric treatment as an effective response to pederasty, though international media outrage over the result of such an attitude is in fact limited to Catholic bishops.

And that outrage is most intense when it involves a certain type of Catholic bishop, of whom Pope Benedict is seen an example. In Hitchens’ final salvo at the Pope, the outspoken atheist spends nearly as much time on Benedict’s transgressions against leftist theology as he does on his supposed failings in dealing with clerical pederasty. (Hitchens also keeps lying in this column, and further reveals his anti-Catholic animus, by claiming that “Almost every episode in this horror show has involved small children being seduced and molested in the confessional itself,” even though there is no evidence that such abuse has occurred primarily in the confessional.) We are told that as Archbishop of Munich Ratzinger reversed the “liberalism” of allowing children to make their First Confession one year after “subject[ing] small children to their first communion at a tender age,” that as Cardinal he defended the Legionaries of Christ, whom Hitchens had earlier described as “ultra-reactionary,” and that as Pope he lifted the excommunications of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, “that group of extreme right-wing schismatics.” (Hitchens never mentions that as Pope Benedict barred the founder of the Legionaries of Christ from public ministry, instructing him to live a life of prayer and penance until his death, following a complaint for sexual abuse filed by former Legionaries in Rome, the truth of which the Legion has now acknowledged.) Indeed, we are told that for Pope Benedict, “the sole test of a good priest is this: Is he obedient to the traditionalist wing of the church?” Concerns over whether children receive their First Communion before or after their First Confession, over whether the SSPX is “schismatic,” over whether the Legionaries of Christ are “ultra-reactionary,” and over whether Benedict favors those in the Church’s “traditionalist wing” are very odd concerns for an atheist to have, unless they show his motivation in blasting Benedict as “a completely undistinguished human being” at the beginning of his papacy and in labeling him as “evil” today. The non-religious editors and writers of the New York Times have long expressed similar concerns over the contours of Benedict’s theology. Hitchens and his allies in the media fear a revival of traditional Christianity, and hate Benedict because they believe that is what he is trying to accomplish within Catholicism.

Of course, there have been many horrific cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and many bishops who, at the very least, failed in their duty to protect those under their care. But sexual abuse within the Church was at its worst in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and John Allen’s case that Pope Benedict has been a force for good on this issue is substantial. Unfortunately, many media reports on this issue reflect, and are calculated to produce, an unreasoning frenzy, reminiscent of the 1960’s, when radicals demanded immediate, wholesale change and expressed contempt for any who dared question their demands. The ranting of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dowd differs more in degree than in kind from much of what is being presented in mainstream media outlets, and comment boxes throughout the internet are filling up with hatred and vitriol. Iconoclastic British atheist Brendan O’Neill, writing at the online journal Spiked, has noticed the same thing: “The discussion of a relatively rare phenomenon as a ‘great evil’ of our age shows that child abuse in Catholic churches has been turned into a morality tale—about the dangers of belief and of hierarchical institutions and the need for more state and other forms of intervention into religious institutions and even religious families.” O’Neill also noted that “it might be unfashionable to say the following but it is true nonetheless: very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.”

Indeed. I have nothing but fond memories of my Jesuit high school, and the Catholic Church has been a great force for good within my family. I know my experience is far from unique, even though I am both saddened and angry that some priests and some bishops have caused other Catholics to have a far different experience of the Church. But I cannot ignore those who have long hated the Church and who are using legitimate concerns over clerical sexual abuse to further a campaign designed to topple the Pope and, they hope, the Church as well, a campaign that, if even moderately successful, will cause incalculable damage.

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