Damian Thompson, the Pope and Panorama

Has Damian Thompson managed to resolve the cognitive dissonance that has been afflicting him ever since the latest round of the ongoing clerical abuse scandal began?

It seems that he has.

Torn between his love for the Pope - who presided for many years over the Vatican department charged with investigating priestly paedophiles, without it seems managing to do much to prevent it - and the horrific facts now emerging not just in Ireland and the USA but throughout the world, Thompsn has fallen back on his old standby. It's not the Pope's fault at all, it seems. Both as Benedict XVI and as Cardinal Ratzinger, he was just about the only person in the entire Catholic hierarchy who cared enough to want to do something about it:

In 2001, he demanded to be sent bishops' files on accused clergy, because he did not believe the cases were being handled with sufficient rigour. He cited a 1962 document which stressed the need for confidentiality. But – and this point is crucial – Ratzinger used his new jurisdiction to act far more harshly against sex abusers than had their useless local bishops. From that point forward, writes John Allen, an American Catholic journalist, "he and his staff seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess".

Unfortunately, Thompson continues, Ratzinger is and was such a Nobby No-Mates at the Vatican that his valiant attempts to root out paedophiles were thwarted at every step by a conspiracy of liberal bishops, whose love of trendy liturgical innovations is matched only by their desire to cover up for clerical perverts. Now these cliquish plotters have joined forces with Guardiansta types who don't like the Pope's views on condoms:

Secularists who despise Catholicism are manipulating tragedies to marginalise Catholics and blacken the name of a Pope, Benedict XVI, who has done far more than his predecessor to root out what he calls the "filth" of sexual abuse. Unfortunately for the Pope, his enemies inside the Church, who include members of the College of Cardinals, are happy for him to take the rap. Ratzinger was never "one of the boys", the "magic circle" of bishops who covered for each other, and now he is paying for it. Expect some judicious leaking of scandals to sympathetic journalists just in time for his visit.

"Sympathetic journalists", by the way, is code for Ruth Gledhill of The Times.

This really won't wash. Even Thompson has to admit that in 2001 Ratzinger "defended and enforced" an earlier requirement that evidence be heard in strict secrecy "under pain of excommunication" - something that he describes as "legitimate secrecy". He also accepts that the future Pope "could have been more vigilant" concerning events in the Munich diocese where he was bishop. And if Ratzinger really was driven by a "convert's zeal", why didn't he simply throw open the relevant files for the world to inspect? Even if his own earlier shortcomings were the result of ignorance rather than complicity, it must by that stage have been apparent that the culture of secrecy had allowed the situation to fester.

Thompson at least professes himself "furious" about the dreadful behaviour of the rest of the church hierarchy (almost everyone, that is, apart from his beloved pontiff):

As a journalist working in the Catholic media, I've encountered again and again a level of deceit reminiscent of the flunkeys of a tinpot dictator. Charles Chaput, the current Archbishop of Denver, a lonely campaigner against episcopal back-slapping, has condemned the "clericalism, excessive secrecy, 'happy talk' and spin control" that enabled the establishment to move abusers around parishes like pieces on a Monopoly board.

So on the one hand you have a church hierarchy steeped in a culture of cover-up, in which deference to superiors and a desire to protect the organisation's reputation counted for everything, and the interests of child victims for little or nothing, in which men who lectured the world on morality, compassion and truth lied repeatedly, obstructed criminal investigations and threatened witnesses with eternal damnation if they didn't keep their mouths shut. On the other hand, there's the saintly figure of Joseph Ratzinger, who maintained the policy of secrecy over many years, and has been supreme absolute monarch of the Catholic Church for almost five years, during which time he has been uniquely placed to deal with the scandal, yet has regularly said too little, always too late. Yet we are supposed to believe that none of this has anything to do with the Pope, and it's all the fault of Thompson's Tablet-reading enemies?

Joseph Ratzinger may not have personally constructed the edifice of deceit and legalistic obfuscation over which he now presides - Rome wasn't built in a day, after all - but he is its perfect embodiment.

Here's the transcript of a remarkable episode of Panorama that aired in October 2006. It features an interview with Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer described as "once a Vatican high flyer" who "criticised the church's handling of child abuse and was sacked." Speaking of the notorious 1962 document Crimen Sollicitatonis - reaffirmed by Ratzinger as recently as 2001 - Doyle had this to say:

Crimen sollicitationis is indicative of a world-wide policy of absolute secrecy and control of all cases of sexual abuse by the clergy. But what you really have here is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy, to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by churchmen. You've got a written policy that says the Vatican will control these situations, and you also have, I think, clear written evidence of the fact that all they're concerned about is containing and controlling the problem. Nowhere in any of these documents does it say anything about helping the victims. The only thing it does is say that they can impose fear on the victims, and punish the victims, for discussing or disclosing what had happened to them.

This is the policy Damian Thompson defends as "legitimate secrecy".

He also approves Ratzinger's decision to have all allegations investigated at Rome, on the grounds that "he did not believe the cases were being handled with sufficient rigour." Yet this policy merely facilitated the continuing cover-up. Panorama described the move as "a missed opportunity to modernise the church's approach just as its biggest scandal was about to break in America." Here's what Fr Doyle thought in 2006:

There's no policy to help the victims, there's absolutely no policy to help those who are trying to help the victims, and there's an unwritten policy to lie about the existence of the problem. Then, as far as the perpetrators, the priests, when they're discovered, the systemic response has been not to investigate and prosecute, but to move them. ...There's total disregard for the victims, total disregard for the fact that you're gonna have a whole new crop of victims in the next place. Now this is not just in the United States where this is happening. This is all over the world. You see the same pattern and practice no matter what country you go to.

Perhaps the most shocking story in the programme - because the most recent - involved a Brazilian serial child-abuser first accused in 1991 who was still active more than a decade later. He was moved at least 4 times following the first allegation, and continued to abuse in each parish to which he was appointed. He finally ended up in "a tiny, and very impoverished community" - appointed by a bishop well aware that he was facing charges in Sao Paolo - where he befriended and abused a five year old boy. As the reporter points out, this was after Ratzinger's instruction that all allegations of child abuse be sent to the Vatican: "So if it knew about the criminal charges against Father Tarcisio why did it allow him to continue working as a priest in close contact with young children?"

Not much wriggle-room for His Holiness there. Nor for Damian Thompson, for that matter. As the Irish abuse victim turned campaigner Colm O'Gorman put it, this child was raped "at exactly the same time that bishops and the Vatican are giving us excuses for why it happened, and for what they're going to do to put it right." Fr Tarcisio was finally convicted, no thanks to the church, after damning evidence was discovered in his private diary.

What should the Pope have done? Perhaps he could have taken Fr Doyle's advice, given more than three years ago on Panorama:

Cardinal Ratzinger, who now is Pope, could tomorrow get up and say 'here's the policy for throughout the church. Full disclosure to the civil authorities. Absolute isolation and dismissal of any convicted cleric. Complete openness and transparency. Complete openness of all financial situations. Stop all barriers to the legal process. Completely cooperate with the civil authorities everywhere.' He could do that.

He could have. But he didn't. Will he do so now that it's probably too late to save either himself or his church's international standing? Unlikely - though the "pastoral letter" currently winging its way to Irish bishops will presumably be more humble in tone than previous offerings. Will he sell off his palace and the treasures of the Vatican museum to help pay for compensation to the victims? Will he resign? Will he fulfil the ancient prophecy of St Malachy by being the last ever Pope? Probably not.

The abuse cover-up scandal may be making the headlines in the world at large, but Pope Benedict has other, equally important, things to think about. He has, for example, just appointed a high-powered commission - led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini and consisting of "cardinals, bishops, theologians and experts" - to look into the alleged appearances of the Virgin Mary at Medjogorje in the former Yugoslavia. Reuters reports that the commission "will work in a confidential manner and submit the result of its investigation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." Another secret committee at the Vatican - great.


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