Joseph Ratzinger continues to have his defenders, mainly Damian Thompson, but most people think he's been caught bang to rights in the affair of the American paedophile priest who for a quarter of a century specialised in raping deaf boys.
Thompson quotes the Vatican's own press agency, which he seems to think is the most neutral source of unbiased information on the case. Here's how the Catholic News Service account begins:
The Vatican defended a decision not to laicize [remove from holy orders] a Wisconsin priest who sexually abused deaf children, despite the recommendation of his bishop that he be removed from the priesthood.
The Vatican defended. Not apologised. Not put up its hands and said "We got this one wrong". And there's no personal statement, even of vague regret, from the man who made the decision, against the recommendation of the local bishop (in fact several bishops), to allow the pervert Fr Lawrence Murphy to die in the dignity of his sacerdotal office. No. The Vatican defended "a decision". A stupid, cowardly, indefensible decision, a bad decision made by a man who has a habit of making - this, I think, is the key point - really bad decisions. Ratzinger is an idiot. A highly intelligent, subtle-minded, doctrinally pure idiot, perhaps, but an idiot none the less.
Who but an idiot would have welcomed the Holocaust-denying "bishop" Richard Williamson back into the fold, for example, after the man had gone on TV and said "I believe there were no gas chambers"? Who but an idiot would have found a comfortable Vatican sinecure for Cardinal Bernard Law, who ought to be helping the Boston police with their enquiries? Who but an idiot would have sat on a flight to Africa and started whittering about condoms spreading AIDS? Damian Thompson regularly complains about "liberal" bishops who aren't part of the papal fan club. But why should they give him their undivided support? The man's an idiot. Practically every time he opens his mouth he causes the Catholic church further damage. And then, when he could do some good by offering a humble and personal apology for his stupid mistakes, he stays silent and leaves it to the Vatican press machine to defend him.
Says Damian Thompson:
It drives me crazy that so much energy is being devoted to trying to acquire the papal scalp while certain profoundly compromised bishops and cardinals have managed to slip out of the public eye – and even land plum appointments in Rome.
Plum appointments in Rome, eh? Who, I wonder, is giving them these plum appointments, or at the very least failing to veto them when their names are suggested to him? Yup, that's right, Damian, THE POPE. Benedict XVI isn't the Queen, you know. He doesn't have to sign every scrap of paper placed in front of him. Theoretically, he has almost limitless powers. If he wanted to clear up this mess, he could do so. Given that he had such influence during the days of John Paul II, he could have done so twenty years ago. It matters that he didn't. That's why he deserves everything that is currently being flung at him, and more.
Some more from Thompson's favoured news source:
Vatican officials who spoke on background said the New York Times story was unfair because it ignored the fact that, at the urging of Cardinal Ratzinger himself, new procedures to deal with priest abusers were put in place in 2002, including measures making it easier to laicize them.
“This would be handled differently today, based on jurisprudence and experience,” one Vatican official told Catholic News Service. “But you can’t accuse people of not applying in 1998 a principle that was established in 2002.”
This justification is highly tendentious, self-serving and seems to be intentionally misleading. It was not "at the urging" of Ratzinger, as though he were merely a lobbyist, that the new procedure was adopted. He was the man in charge in 2002, just as he had been for the previous twenty years. The "Vatican official" - almost certainly Mgr Lombardi (the Vatican sharing with Whitehall an anachronistic love of confidential briefings, even when they serve no purpose) - is telling us that a man cannot be blamed for making a decision twenty years too late. The scale of the child abuse scandal was becoming evident long before 1996 when the Murphy case landed on his desk. Of course he can be blamed for it.
Let's be generous to Ratzinger. Let's assume that he's as horrified by the sexual abuse of children by priests as he ought to be. Let's assume that, at least by his own lights, his action in demanding that all cases of abuse be referred to Rome was an honest attempt to treat the problem with the serious it deserved, rather than a way of removing incidents from the prying eyes of local secular authorities. Let's not impute any sinister connotations to the requirement for secrecy, on pain of excommunication, which was demanded from witnesses (including the victims of abuse themselves). Let's accept that delays were the result of insufficiency of resources rather than of a desire to protect the good name of the church or an unwillingness to believe the worst of its clergy. And let's admit that he has, since his election, treated the abuse cases with more seriousness than his lackadaisical predecessor.
It's still not good enough. By centralising the procedure, Ratzinger took personal responsibility for all cases that came across his desk. If he had insufficient resources to do the job properly, he should have acquired them. If this were impossible, if he was unable to find the time or the means to tackle the problem as it deserved to be tackled, then he should not have undertaken the task in the first place - or if he had already undertaken it, he should have admitted publicly that his department was not up to it, and adopted some other procedure, such as the automatic suspension of all accused clergy pending civil investigation. Instead, he continued to act as though his office were the best and most appropriate forum, and in doing so delayed the day of reckoning at the expense of causing additional pain to the victims of child abuse. It was, at the very least, administrative incompetence of the highest order. And that lies at Ratzinger's door, no-one else's.
Here's my guess. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a job that used to carry with it the more resonant title of Grand Inquisitor, Ratzinger had other fish to fry. Although, as the department responsible for clerical discipline, cases concerning paedophile priests came within its purview, they were never the priority. The clue's in the title: what bothered Ratzinger was doctrine. He spent most of his waking hours chasing down theologians who showed signs of independent thought, most notably Hans Küng (now taking his revenge), and removing them from their positions. He earned his nickname of God's Rotweiller for his savaging of doctrinal dissidents, his aggressiveness in defence of orthodoxy and his insistence that people at all levels of the church display unquestioning obedience to his and his master's diktats. He was Darth Vader to John Paul II's Palpatine.
It wasn't that the victims of clerical sex abuse didn't matter at all to Ratzinger. It's that they didn't matter as much as the other stuff, the stamping out of doctrinal deviation, the internal Vatican politics. Ratzinger was, and is, a man of seriously warped priorities. That much was evident in his letter to the Irish clergy, in which he put the blame for the abuse on secularising tendencies in wider society. Arguable, perhaps, if unlikely, but in any case irrelevant and out of place in a document that called for personal as well as corporate contrition. It was, though, vintage Ratzinger.
Richard Dawkins once wrote, in ironic celebration of Pope John Paul II, that he was "perfectly qualified to do it [the Catholic church] the gravest possible damage and is in the strongest strategic position to do so." In comparison with the present pope, however, his predecessor wasn't even trying.