A Strange Attack from the New York Times

Since at least last March, the New York Times has been obsessed with a question: “What did Joseph Ratzinger know, and when did he know it?” At issue, of course, is the role played by Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — in relation to the scandal of clergy sex abuse.

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It’s a fair question. Probably the Times has spent too much time on it while straining to place a negative interpretation on the facts. But the question undoubtedly is an acceptable one for a newspaper — and for the rest of us, too — to ask.

The latest Times story in this line, published July 2, concerns the years from 1981, when Cardinal Ratzinger became prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Faith, until 2005, when he was elected pope. The headline is unspeakably bad because grossly untrue (“Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal”), but the text that follows is a mixed bag.

Closely read, the picture that emerges is that Cardinal Ratzinger did a good-to-excellent job on the abuse issue as CDF head. The Times‘ own overall conclusion — he didn’t do everything that, ideally, he might — comes across as a stretch. So does a follow-up editorial a week later that strains to make the same point.

Here I must admit to a personal interest in this particular journalistic exercise. In a conversation (not an interview) several weeks ago with one of the Times’ writers whose bylines appear on the story, I said something like this:

“As far as I can see, Ratzinger was one of the first people at his level in the Curia — perhaps the first — to understand how serious this whole problem was and really try to grapple with it.

“Remember, he didn’t have an entirely free hand, he faced obstacles and opposition within the Vatican. But given what was possible, he did very well.”

A great deal of the Times story sounds like a reply to that.

It’s a bizarre piece of writing, full of helpful information that leads the reader to think well of Cardinal Ratzinger along with obtuse comments by the writers that conflict with the facts they report. They choose to describe Ratzinger as part of a closed, self-referential culture at the Vatican; but unwittingly what they’ve written reflects a closed, self-referential culture at The New York Times, with limited understanding combining with a hypercritical view of the Catholic Church.

The story makes much of the disclosure that the CDF (or, more properly, its predecessor, the Holy Office) was “given authority over sexual abuse cases” by a papal mandate in 1922. That is 79 years before Pope John Paul II specifically placed CDF in charge of the issue. This 1922 mandate is said to have been reaffirmed in 1962.

The implication is that Cardinal Ratzinger had jurisdiction over this matter from the time he arrived at CDF in 1981 and didn’t have to wait for new papal instructions in order to take charge of the issue.

In no way, however, is this persuasive. As the story itself makes clear, by the 1980s and 1990s the mandate of 1922/1962 had long been forgotten by just about everyone in Rome. Even to the few who were aware of it, it was far from clear that it was still in force.

Obviously that applies to John Paul II, who in 2001 deemed it necessary specifically to assign the issue to Ratzinger’s congregation, and to Cardinal Ratzinger, who was closely and actively involved in causing the pope to do that. It’s inconceivable that either man would have felt a need to act as he did in 2001 if he believed CDF at that time already had clear authority as the Holy See’s lead agent on clerical sex abuse.


To its credit, nonetheless, the Times story makes a number of important points. For instance: that bishops in years past had “a variety of disciplinary tools at their disposal” for dealing with abuse, without having to refer to the Vatican; that there nevertheless was “a bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal process” on this issue in Rome throughout the 1980s and 1990s; that the staff of the doctrinal congregation, numbering a modest three dozen, had many things besides sex abuse to worry about in those years; and that, at a hitherto unreported 2000 meeting between Vatican officials and worried bishops from several English-speaking countries, Cardinal Ratzinger stood out for his understanding and passionate concern.

“I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward,” the Times quotes an Australian bishop. The comment is similar to a remark by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference at the time the scandal of sex abuse and cover-up erupted in 2002, who says that in his many meetings with Cardinal Ratzinger he found him “extraordinarily supportive” of the Americans’ steps to take corrective action.

One can readily agree that confusion at the Vatican and among bishops in the field helped worsen this tragedy. And it is dismaying to read even now in the Times that Vatican officials “declined to answer detailed questions” about the record of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Detailed answers to detailed questions were and are precisely what have long been needed to settle at least one aspect of this whole ugly business once and for all.

Even as it stands, however, and taking due account of its journalistic failings, the latest venture by the New York Times into this thicket contains ample information to show that Benedict XVI should be praised, not blamed, for his handling of the abuse crisis during his CDF years. Too bad the Times doesn’t understand what it found out.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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