Peter Tatchell's Channel 4 Hatchet Job on the Pope Is So Crude That It Misses Its Target

By Damian Thompson
September 8, 2010

Peter Tatchell's Channel 4 documentary about Pope Benedict XVI, The Trouble with The Pope, scheduled to be broadcast next Monday, begins with an incredibly dirty trick.

Within seconds of introducing Benedict as the leader of the Catholic Church, the film switches into the testimony of a woman describing a sexual assault by a British priest decades ago, before Ratzinger was even a bishop. "He was slobbering all over me I felt something inside me." It's a vile juxtaposition whose subliminal message verges on incitement to religious hatred.

Another cheap trick: right at the start, the voice of a young German man is heard asking, "Do I want to be part of a Church in which people deny the Holocaust?" As it happens, I think revoking the excommunication of Richard Williamson was an act of shockingly stupid naivety. But to imply subtly that this suspended bishop's views on the Holocaust are acceptable to Pope Benedict is a smear tactic, plain and simple. (There is a major world religion in which Holocaust denial is extremely popular, but don't expect a TV documentary on that any time soon.)

I know that Tatchell profoundly disagrees with Catholic teaching. Fair enough. But I also thought he had enough integrity not to misrepresent key concepts such as papal infallibility, which he implies means that no decision of the Pope can be questioned a schoolboy error. Tatchell also claims that the Pope's previous role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave him control over Church doctrines. That last statement is so ignorant that I could hardly believe I was hearing it. Did Channel 4 not employ any researchers for this project?

Throughout the film, Tatchell twists the truth again and again. "To this day, Richard Williamson remains a member of the Catholic Church approved by the Pope," he says. I'm sorry, but a bishop who is barred from exercising his episcopal orders is not approved by the Pope. If a crazed Marxist bishop were similarly suspended, he would be presented by Channel 4 as a persecuted martyr, not "approved".

"The Pope has done enormous damage to his moral authority," says Tatchell. I think the Williamson blunder did do damage, yes but Tatchell's own slender claims to moral authority (and he has campaigned bravely for his causes) are also damaged by a film that doggedly misleads its audience.

The teachings of the Catholic Church on sexual morality are NOT innovations of Joseph Ratzinger. He inherited them, he is faithful to them, and even if he wished to permit artificial birth control, abortion or extra-marital sexual acts he could not do so. Tatchell finds Catholic doctrines in these areas to be "incomprehensible". But there is no evidence that he has made any attempt to understand them or, for that matters, the subtle and complex theology of Ratzinger. (Tatchell sniffily describes the Pope's thinking as "black and white," which suggests to me that he hasn't read a single book by the man he is supposed to be profiling.)

Instead, he chooses interviewees who largely shares his views, or represent those of a liberal lobby within the Catholic Church. One of the few exceptions is a woman called Fiona O'Reilly from the mainstream group Catholic Voices, who alone among Tatchell's interviewees is not allowed to finish her sentences without being interrupted.

And clerical sex abuse? The charge that Benedict XVI covered up the crimes of paedophile priests falls apart under close examination. Journalists have tried very hard to implicate this Pope in conspiracies to silence victims; they have failed to do so, though we do now know that Pope John Paul II was not nearly attentive enough to the scandal. But that doesn't fit Tatchell's script, so after a perfunctory attempt to suggest that Benedict "has form" in this area we move swiftly on.

It is inconceivable that Channel 4 would have sanctioned such a poorly researched hatchet job on, for example, a Muslim leader. Still, I can't say that The Trouble with The Pope left me feeling any more anxious about the Pope's visit than I already am. A more nuanced, imaginative and accurate programme could have done real damage. You missed a trick there, Peter.

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