Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fletch The Latest Papal 'Scandal' - The Facts

There is an excellent piece over at Catholic Culture regarding the latest co-called 'Papal Scandal' written by Phil Lawler. It's so good that I'm just going to paste it here. You can see that the old axiom of the facts not getting in the way of a good story is still true. These journalists should be ashamed. I know some Catholics depressed about the latest media releases concerning the Church, so it is good to have a run-down of the real facts.

We're off and running once again, with another completely phony story that purports to implicate Pope Benedict XVI in the protection of abusive priests.

The "exclusive" story released by AP yesterday, which has been dutifully passed along now by scores of major media outlets, would never have seen the light of day if normal journalistic standards had been in place. Careful editors should have asked a series of probing questions, and in every case the answer to those questions would have shown that the story had no "legs."

First to repeat the bare-bones version of the story: in November 1985, then-Cardinal Ratzinger signed a letter deferring a decision on the laicization of Father Stephen Kiesle, a California priest who had been accused of molesting boys.

Now the key questions:

• Was Cardinal Ratzinger responding to the complaints of priestly pedophilia? No. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which the future Pontiff headed, did not have jurisdiction for pedophile priests until 2001. The cardinal was weighing a request for laicization of Kiesle.

• Had Oakland's Bishop John Cummins sought to laicize Kiesle as punishment for his misconduct? No. Kiesle himself asked to be released from the priesthood. The bishop supported the wayward priest's application.

• Was the request for laicization denied? No. Eventually, in 1987, the Vatican approved Kiesle's dismissal from the priesthood.

• Did Kiesle abuse children again before he was laicized? To the best of our knowledge, No. The next complaints against him arose in 2002: 15 years after he was dismissed from the priesthood.

• Did Cardinal Ratzinger's reluctance to make a quick decision mean that Kiesle remained in active ministry? No. Bishop Cummins had the authority to suspend the predator-priest, and in fact he had placed him on an extended leave of absence long before the application for laicization was entered.

• Would quicker laicization have protected children in California? No. Cardinal Ratzinger did not have the power to put Kiesle behind bars. If Kiesle had been defrocked in 1985 instead of 1987, he would have remained at large, thanks to a light sentence from the California courts. As things stood, he remained at large. He was not engaged in parish ministry and had no special access to children.

• Did the Vatican cover up evidence of Kiesle's predatory behavior? No. The civil courts of California destroyed that evidence after the priest completed a sentence of probation-- before the case ever reached Rome.

So to review: This was not a case in which a bishop wanted to discipline his priest and the Vatican official demurred. This was not a case in which a priest remained active in ministry, and the Vatican did nothing to protect the children under his pastoral care. This was not a case in which the Vatican covered up evidence of a priest's misconduct. This was a case in which a priest asked to be released from his vows, and the Vatican-- which had been flooded by such requests throughout the 1970s -- wanted to consider all such cases carefully. In short, if you're looking for evidence of a sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, this case is irrelevant.

We Americans know what a sex-abuse crisis looks like. The scandal erupts when evidence emerges that bishops have protected abusive priests, kept them active in parish assignments, covered up evidence of the charges against them, and lied to their people. There is no such evidence in this or any other case involving Pope Benedict XVI.

Competent reporters, when dealing with a story that involves special expertise, seek information from experts in that field. Capable journalists following this story should have sought out canon lawyers to explain the 1985 document-- not merely relied on the highly biased testimony of civil lawyers who have lodged multiple suits against the Church. If they had understood the case, objective reporters would have recognized that they had no story. But in this case, reporters for the major media outlets are far from objective.

The New York Times-- which touched off this feeding frenzy with two error-riddled front-page reports-- seized on the latest "scoop" by AP to say that the 1985 document exemplified:

…the sort of delay that is fueling a renewed sexual abuse scandal in the church that has focused on whether the future pope moved quickly enough to remove known pedophiles from the priesthood, despite pleas from American bishops.

Here we have a complete rewriting of history. Earlier in this decade, American newspapers exposed the sad truth that many American bishops had kept pedophile priests in active ministry. Now the Times, which played an active role in exposing that scandal, would have us believe that the American bishops were striving to rid the priesthood of the predators, and the Vatican resisted!

No, what is "fueling a renewed sexual abuse scandal" is a media frenzy. There is a scandal here, indeed, but it's not the scandal you're reading about in the mass media. The scandal is the complete collapse of journalistic standards in the handling of this story.

Phil Lawler - Director,

26 comment(s):

ZenTiger said...

As usual, when I start investigating the background to the story, what is reported (or implied, or alleged, or insinuated) is often quite far from the full facts of the matter.

There was a terribly inaccurate piece of opinionated fluff from Finlay MacDonald in the SST today, and I'll fisk it if I get a chance this week (and can find an electronic version). He continues to astound me with supposedly heavyweight opinion built on very little substance.

big news said...

It might be worthwhile having a read of the actual correspondence on this matter

I.M Fletcher said...

Thanks bignews. Good to have the original documents; I just had a read. Now if only the MSM had looked into it themselves as well, they would have seen there was no story.

ZenTiger said...

Maybe they did look into it, and decided they could make a story?

It's either dereliction of reporting standards, or maliciousness. Either case shows them to be disgraceful, and deserves a front page apology.

big news said...

THe MSM did look into the letters - they quoted from one. You linked to the story that had that quote.

I.M Fletcher said...

bignews, well I guess they have no excuse then. I suppose it generated sales for them.

Anonymous said...

then the media should have done what Fr Zuhlsdorf suggested here:

It seems the media, and many bloggers with an axe to grind, forget reasonable inquiry and questioning when it comes to this matter.

big news said...

Likewise, the catholic media are also to blame for spinning. Any catholic media outlet could have posted those letters in the above link to clarify any reasonable inquiry. As far as I am aware, they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Dave, they read the documents and realised that they indicated Pope Benedict was not really responsible for any problems, and as a consequence didn't rush into print with incorrect and false assertions.

Also, the Vatican has its own media group and they published/released them.

I.M Fletcher said...

I see that on today's news Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have hired lawyers to see if they can get the Pope arrested when he comes to England shortly. I feel that this has nothing to do with justice - it's pure hate.

I.M Fletcher said...

There is also a very good answer HERE.

If one looks at the history, too many priests were applying for these dispensations and John Paul II put a stop to it - being a priest is supposed to be for life (as is marriage) and JPII thought the Church was granting too many of these dispensations (which dropped to almost zero when he took over).

What was John Paul's intent? To restore the integrity of the priesthood and of marriage. These commitments are permanent. A priest may be removed from ministry, but he will not be given a dispensation to marry. Priests are to be made to take their commitments with utmost seriousness. They will be an example to married couples to take theirs seriously also. When a priest makes a promise of celibacy, it's forever; when a couple make vows of marriage, it's forever.

This is the decisive context of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter to Bishop Cummins. It is not a smoking gun. It did not mean that Ratzinger was not taking the priest's sins seriously. (He called the accusations "very serious" [gravis momenti].) It meant that he, following the policy of John Paul II, was taking the priesthood and its commitments very seriously.

And again, this entire affair had nothing to do with preventing further abuse by this priest. That had already been done, or should have been done, by the local bishop.

Also, giving a dispensation is a removal of restraint.

The reason the word "dispensation" is used in the correspondence is that that is what happens technically: the priest is dispensed from his obligation of celibacy. In a sense, this works in the opposite direction from protection: a restraint is being removed.

So, what the media are really doing are criticizing Benedict for not removing the restraint of celibacy against this priest.

David Winter said...

Hey guys,

remember climate gate? When you just took the word of media and "many bloggers with an axe to grind" to be the truth? And then you ran off and set silly things without actually bothering to understand what was said in the emails and how they impacted on climate research.

You might want to remember this next time something like that happens.

ZenTiger said...

Not even close David. I actually went and read the emails and pro and con blogs to get a range of opinions.

In this situation, the media read the material and then deliberately misrepresented facts. There was no cover-up.

I do agree though that the media are always to be thought of as biased and prone to hype to get a story, and that point is never forgotten, irrespective of the viewpoint.

Danyl said...

Don't you think it's a bit weird that when a Priest ties up and rapes two children it takes years to defrock them, but when Priests marry or come out of the closet they're thrown out of the church overnight

ZenTiger said...

Do you have an example of a Priest being thrown out of the Catholic Church by the Vatican "overnight" for marrying or declaring themselves Gay?

Lucia Maria said...


Thanks for keeping on top of this. Both here and at DPF's. Good job.

big news said...

Guys, lets check out the facts shall we – because you’ve missed a few in that blog post. Bishop Cummins [of Oakland] first petitioned the doctrinal office to defrock Mr. Kiesle in 1981. He also wrote directly to Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Ratzinger requested more information, which officials in the Oakland Diocese supplied in February 1982. They did not hear back from Cardinal Ratzinger until 1985, when he sent the letter in Latin suggesting that his office needed more time to evaluate the case.

I’m not sure what they evaluated, nor why it took so long, but it took five years after all information was given to the Vatican for it to make a decision to defrock this priest at his onw request!!! Five years! That’s nine years after he was convicted for child molestation.

You wrote
Did Cardinal Ratzinger's reluctance to make a quick decision mean that Kiesle remained in active ministry? No

But he remained in active ministry anyway – In 1988 - after he was defrocked - he was the youth ministry coordinator at St. Joseph’s parish in Pinole. Then more complaints followed of dodgy behaviour.

The translation of the Latin letter I linked earlier is here. Apparently, the age of a priest is a more important consideration than whether he is a convicted child molester, when considering removal from the priesthood. The Vatican rarely removes priests until they are over the age of 40 - so they waited until he was 40 to defrock him.

ZenTiger said...

I'll look into that Dave. A quick point though - surely, if the local Bishop is requesting a Priest is defrocked, and the Vatican does it, it's on the Bishop's head that he keeps the priest in work.

I don't see how that would be Ratzingers fault.

I also thought the initial letter / request had got lost. Again, getting the paperwork sorted has nothing to do with the Bishop's ability to keep him away from children.

And what happened to the court case? Guilty of heinous crimes, and yet not jailed? I really must find the court case details to see why they were so lenient.

David Winter said...

I actually went and read the emails and pro and con blogs to get a range of opinions.

Well if the posts labeled 'globing warming' on this blog are what are produced when you examine your biases, seek alternative opinions and draw your own conclusions then I really do worry about some authors here...

KG said...

All you're "worried" about David is that when people examine their biases, seek alternative opinions and draw their own conclusions, those conclusions aren't what you think they ought to be.

I.M Fletcher said...

bignews, I think there is some confusion about the 'defrocking'. As from the link I posted earlier -

There is a completely mistaken first premise underlying all this criticism.The premise is that "defrocking" has anything to do with protecting victims and preventing further abuse.

First, the media needs to know that according to Catholic teaching, Holy Orders is a sacrament which leaves an "indelible mark"; in layman's terms, once ordained a priest, a man is always a priest. The reason the word "dispensation" is used in the correspondence is that that is what happens technically: the priest is dispensed from his obligation of celibacy. In a sense, this works in the opposite direction from protection: a restraint is being removed.

Further, as if to prove this point, the priest in question continued to abuse children after he was "defrocked" and had married. QED.

Secondly, nothing at all prevents a bishop from: removing a priest from all ministry; removing his faculties; reporting him to civil authorities. There is no need even to inform Rome about this. The only way (until 2001 or in cases of abuse of Confession) that it need get to Rome is if the priest appeals the bishop's actions.

Thirdly, why was the CDF involved anyway? That was not the congregation that handles abuse cases, except where abuse of Confession has played a role. I believe the CDF was involved in cases of dispensation from celibacy. (Though you would think that should be under the Congregation for Priests.) But, again, dispensation has nothing to do with preventing further abuse. It may appease the sense of justice on the part of victims. But at the same time, It normally takes eight to ten years to become a priest. It's not a club one joins. It is a very serious thing to dispense a priest from celibacy, and there needs to be a careful process to protect innocent priests.

Fourthly, there are definitely cased of priests who have been falsely accused. Especially the American media ought to be sensitive to the principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Civil law requires that to be done in a court of law. A bishop can, and in many cases, should take action against a priest before there is any canonical trial.

And so, to my mind (and I think the facts back it up), the letter to Benedict and his office had nothing to do with getting a priest out of harms way of children. The Bishop already has/had the right to do that without any consultation with Rome. I think this is backed up by the fact that Benedict's office then had entirely nothing to do with abuse in the Church.

I believe the reason he was being written to was to gain "dispensation" - eg, so he could be dispensed from his obligation to celibacy. John Paul II, if you'd read the link, had come down very hard on what seemed like a huge number of priests applying for this in the 1970s, and so he stopped it. - Hardly any priests were given dispensation in 1980 onwards. This is probably why it took so long.

It had nothing to do with his abuse, but seems to have been another matter entirely.

ZenTiger said...

So which particular post about Climategate of mine do you object to David? Leave a comment under it and I will continue the thread there.

ZenTiger said...

Exactly Fletch.

Ironically, a child abuser wanted to be released from the vows of celibacy, and to be released from Priesthood - vows he never respected, and it may have been a small punishment to have this "hanging over his head" and being kept in limbo.

Equally, the Vatican had said to the Bishops to look after him, placing an onus on them (that they have anyway) to keep him away from children, but equally, not to abandon him. Cutting him loose might satisfy the secular world, and mean the Diocese doesn't have to find room and board for this "employee", but it also enabled them to wash their hands of him.

As their letter pointed out, it would reduce scandal to drop him like a hot potato. The Vatican instead seemed to be happy that he was taken out of the public eye, but not abandoned.

The letters discussed his prior misdeeds, and how he received a 3 year probation (can't count on the secular courts to punish wrong doers can we?) and was in therapy and supposedly improving. They don't convey the same sense of danger that hindsight would reveal. In any event, a request for releasing the Priest from his vows was and is a separate issue to the responsibility they had not to employ him in any areas that involved public contact.

I note the complaints about him from parishioners at the time were about his apparent immaturity and adolescent behaviour than sexual offending, and perhaps many people were fooled into believing he was "cured".

That's tragic, and new systems are in place to prevent this kind of mismanagement. It's also nothing that one could blame Ratzinger for.

Glenn said...

David Winter - what an absurd tactic.

1) make a note of one time when you think someone is wrong and you are right over an interpretation of facts.

2) Then wait for a time when they think that someone else is wrong over an interpretation of facts.

3) Then step in and say "See? See how bad it is to be wrong over interpretations of facts? Next time when we disagree, agree with mine."

Sure. That's convincing. What a bizarre form of opportunism.

David Winter said...


That's not what I was doing at all. I simply tough it was amusing to see human nature spelled out so clearly.

Last year there was a scandel driven almost entirely by "bloggers with axes to grind" and media reporting. That scandel suited biases of the authors so they just repeated the noise. (to be fair, a glance over the relevant tags suggested that was mainly limited to a few of the authors here)

Today there is a scandal that doesn't suit there biases so they search out counter arguments.

Wouldn't it be nice if people spend as long examining their biases and seeking other opinions when they hear news that suits their preconceptions?

ZenTiger said...

Sure David. I guess the point made by many people is that the Church is expected to hold to a higher standard of moral excellence than perhaps a State run school, and I can see that point (and statistically, I think it might, but that leads me to the second point)

In the same way, the media needs to maintain a higher standard of reporting and offering information than the media releases they seem content to parrot, and that clearly isn't happening. I know what I'm getting with a blog post, and I know what I'm expecting with the New York Times who promote themselves as the home of quality journalists. They do a lot of damage with front page headlines and page 30 retractions, and it would be good to clean that up.

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