Scandals rock my faith in church, not Catholicism

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

January 30, 2022

By David Quinn

Benedict XVI might not have handled German abuse allegations properly but the word of God is as strong as ever

When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to be an associate justice of the US Supreme Court in 2018 by President Trump, he was accused by Christine Blasey Ford, a university lecturer, of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers in the early 1980s.

The accusation dominated the Senate hearings that eventually confirmed his nomination. Whether you supported Kavanaugh or Ford depended on who you wanted to believe. Republicans sided with Kavanaugh, who was of course entitled to the presumption of innocence, while Democrats tended to take Ford at her word.

We all suffer from confirmation bias. We are drawn to evidence that confirms what we believe but tend to be sceptical about arguments that do the opposite.

In Germany, a 2,000-page report was published on January 20 that catalogues failures by the Catholic archdiocese of Munich to protect children against sexual abuse by clerics and other diocesan workers. The report covers the period 1945 to 2019 and was commissioned by the archdiocese itself.

It tells a tale that will be depressingly familiar to Irish people. Priests were moved from parish to parish after abuse allegations were made against them. Sometimes they were sent for treatment. Civil authorities were frequently not told of the accusations. Many priests went on to abuse more children.

What makes this report stand out from similar ones is that among the church leaders accused of failing to deal properly with abuse allegations is no less a figure than Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, who is living in retirement inside the walls of Vatican City.

He was archbishop of Munich, one of the biggest Catholic dioceses in the world, from 1977 until 1982. The report identifies at least 497 victims over the 74-year period examined. It finds that at least 235 people involved with the diocese were accused of child sexual abuse, including priests, deacons and employees of Catholic schools.

The document says that in at least four cases Benedict failed to act properly. He initially denied the accusations of failure, including that he attended a meeting when one of the cases was discussed. The former pope then corrected himself, and agreed that he was, in fact, at the meeting.

Like Republicans backing Kavanaugh or Democrats wanting to believe Ford, I would like to think that Benedict dealt with every accusation perfectly and according to the standards of today.

In his mind he might be cavilling at the word “misconduct”, which was used against him by the commission of investigation. He could even be employing some version of “mental reservation”, a term made famous by Cardinal Desmond Connell, the late Catholic archbishop of Dublin, whereby you might use a word in one way, knowing someone else will understand it in another, or you withhold the whole truth.

We cannot look inside the 94-year-old Benedict’s mind but presumably he will be meeting his maker soon enough, and He can. So I hope the pope emeritus has a clear conscience.

Benedict is to issue a detailed response to the report in due course, but I would be amazed if he handled the cases he knew about in the proper manner, because no one in the church seems to have done so in those days. If you were a bishop or religious superior before the mid-1990s, it is almost certain that you were thinking more of priest protection and the reputation of the church than child protection. Clerics were given every benefit of the doubt. They were frequently regarded as being sick, not sinful, and sent for therapy, not to the police.

It should be said that while he was running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Benedict improved the church’s response to the abuse crisis, introducing a fast-track procedure that led to the laicising of hundreds of priests accused of sexually abusing children.

Roughly the first half of my career in journalism coincided with the abuse scandals coming to light in this country. I wrote and said several times that I believed every bishop in Ireland appointed before 1996 should have resigned in order to show their moral seriousness about the revelations. I picked 1996 because that is the year the church’s first set of child protection guidelines was issued.

The German report follows an investigation that covered the whole of France, and not just one diocese, which looked at the period from 1950 to 2020. Published in October, it estimated that sexual violence in French society occurred at scale, with 5.5 million children suffering sexual assault over the 70 years examined. The study said that up to 300,000 of those youngsters were abused by a priest or other church worker. Even if the number were half that, it would be gargantuan.

The French commission of investigation, instigated by the Catholic church, was headed by Jean-Marc Sauvé, a former senior public official and a practising Catholic. In an interview with the magazine La Vie, Sauvé made the telling observation that the church had come to underestimate the reality of evil, which is ironic given how often it has preached against sin. He said: “The evil that disguises itself under the tinsel of salvation is the worst. I wouldn’t have dared to imagine that, especially on this scale.” Discussing how the findings affected his own faith, Sauvé said his “link to the church is . . . no longer the same”, and he has “rediscovered how the weight of my faith is in the word of God”. What he almost certainly means is that his faith in the institutional church has been weakened but he still believes in Catholicism itself.

What might his reasoning be? Many areas of life, including schools, scouting and sport, have been beset by similar scandals. Like the Catholic church, the United Nations presents itself as a moral authority but it too has been plagued by every kind of scandal, including child sex abuse and a lack of accountability. Do you stop believing in the ideals of the UN because of this, or do you seek to reform it because you think its ideals and goals are still worth pursuing?

This is my attitude towards Catholicism, and it appears to be that of Sauvé too: he is damning in his condemnations of church authorities but nonetheless still practises his faith. If you believe in something strongly enough, you try to make it better.

You don’t turn away — not even when popes fail.