Andrew M Brown

Andrew M Brown is a writer who specialises in mental health and in the influence of addiction and substance abuse on culture.

Why can't the media treat the Pope fairly?

By Andrew M Brown Religion March 28th, 2010

I read the coverage of the Pope every day in the newspapers and listen to the BBC news and as a Catholic and a journalist I feel like crying out pathetically: “This is not fair!” And it isn’t fair, or reasonable. Intelligent journalists who are normally capable of mental subtlety and of coping with complexities have abandoned their critical faculties. There is an atmosphere of unreason.

I cannot help feeling that a lot of it is down to sheer, blind hatred. It amounts to the demonisation of a whole institution and its leader. We have come to a stage where nothing good whatever, no good faith can be assumed of anybody involved in the Church – however senior, however greatly respected, loved, admired, including the Pope.

In this hysteria, everybody is tainted. A Catholic, writes as though the entire priesthood is corrupted by sexual  repression and they’re all, every single one of them, covering up for each other.

They cover up for one another; they fear that if one of them falls, they will all fall; even those who are not totally screwed up about sex are eager to prevent the church’s secret from being exposed. But the more they cover up, the bigger the calamity when it all emerges. And when it’s clear that at the center of this kind of pathological secrecy and shame is the current Pope, then it is clear that the entire institution is corrupt from the top down. These men are too objectively disordered to run a church.

Look at the newspaper cartoons, usually a reliable index, if you doubt the unreasoning quality of prevailing attitudes. The cartoons caricaturing Pope Benedict XVI in recent months – with corks stuck in his ears in one paper, with a condom on his head in another – have been pure bile, designed to poison the imagination. Today Gerald Scarfe in the Sunday Times depicts the Pope as a skeletal figure, a sort of memento mori, sheltering under his voluminous robes a group comprised of diabolical, leering priests with horns on their heads and cowering boys in pyjamas. Underneath the word “Hell” is scrawled in big letters.

Consider also India Knight’s column today in the same newspaper, headed “Holy Father, I can no longer stay in this Church of Disgust”. This is the work of a sophisticated writer, with a half-page weekly column in the top-selling quality Sunday newspaper. A lot of people will tend to believe what they read here. Among other charges, Knight repeats the general gist of the New York Times story. But she does it in a slightly opaque fashion that seems calculated to do utmost harm to the Pope.

She claims that Murphy, an abusing priest in Milwaukee, “avoided justice after an intervention by Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Pope”. In the next breath, she writes: “Murphy was moved to another parish in 1974 and spent his final two decades working with children. ” She also says Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee “twice wrote to Ratzinger requesting that Murphy be defrocked”.

But surely this juxtaposition of facts could be a bit misleading. Ratzinger could not have done anything about Murphy’s crimes in the 1970s because he didn’t know about them. Knight does not mention when Archbishop Weakland got around to writing to Ratzinger. Murphy’s crimes were first reported in 1974 and Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee didn’t write to Ratzinger until 1996 – 20 years later, when Murphy was on the point of death and beyond harming anybody. That’s relevant, is it not? So why does Knight not mention it?

Wouldn’t it be more pertinent to ask what Archbishop Weakland was doing about child abusers in his diocese in the intervening years before he decided to write to the Vatican? One can’t help thinking it’s all about nailing the Pope and to hell with what really happened.

As for Archbishop Weakland, the media have seized on him as a prime witness against the Pope. On Radio Four’s PM last Thursday, Eddie Mair trumpeted “an extended interview” with the archbishop, who was asked more about what Ratzinger did or didn’t do.

The archbishop sounded humble, eminently reasonable, definitely believable. But is he a reliable witness? Apart from a vague expression by Weakland of personal failing, the average listener to Radio Four would be none the wiser about his  checkered history and any of the facts that might make him a biased or less-than-reliable witness. (For more on Rembert Weakland, start with his Wikipedia page.)

The average listener would not know, for instance, how Archbishop Weakland first responded to accusations from parents about child abuse – by muttering about libel. Or that he admitted routinely shredding copies of reports about “problem priests” in his diocese. Or that in 1988 he said the following about sex abuse victims: “Not all adolescent victims are so innocent. Some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise. We frequently try such adolescents for crimes as adults at that age.”

Or even that he forked out $450,000 of diocesan funds to buy the silence (and ward off a legal action) of a former graduate student named Paul Marcoux with whom he had carried on an inappropriate relationship.

I am not asking for special treatment of the Pope, by the way. I think he must be held accountable the same as all Church leaders. I think the Press is entitled to ask questions and to subject a secretive institution to scrutiny.

I have read the Irish reports into child abuse and I must say they are eye-openers. They are heart-breaking. The idea that individuals who claimed to be acting in the name of Christ, the embodiment of all gentleness and mercy, could behave with such monstrous corruption and brutality towards innocent children is almost impossible to comprehend. It appalls me to think of the fear and pain of a little child seeking help and relief from torment at the hands of some abusing priest or brother, only to be disbelieved by the authorities or even punished. I have read Occasions of Sin, Diarmaid Ferriter’s masterly account of the modern Irish Church and the choke-hold that institution had over Irish society.

I am suggesting only that some of the untruths that keep getting repeated should be checked. It’s only what journalists are supposed to do every day of their working lives. Hold the claims up to the light. Speak to people who don’t have an axe to grind. Apply the principle of fairness.

The business about the so-called “pontifical secret” and the letter of 2001, touted as a “smoking gun” which implicates the Pope in cover-up, is an object lesson in the way the media repeats a “fact” and yet barely examines it. Christopher Hitchens held this up as uniquely damning evidence and so has the BBC and now a dozen other journalists have parroted the same thing. This is a misreading, as John Allen and Sean Murphy explains. If you want to understand amid all the fury, read these articles. They make sense.

Essentially, Ratzinger’s 2001 directive made it easier to act against sex abusers. The secrecy that’s mentioned is hardly different from the secrecy that obtains in all sorts of sensitive hearings and investigations in the secular world such as those of the Family Court. What happened in 2001, actually, reflects to the Pope’s credit. That year saw Ratzinger’s moment of “conversion” as it has been termed.

He reviewed all the files on every priest who had been plausibly accused of abuse anywhere in the world and he took responsibility for what he called the “filth” that had infected the Church. At last there was someone high up in the Vatican who really got it. As John Allen says, “beforehand, he came off as just another Roman cardinal in denial”, but suddenly he and his staff became “energetic” in pursuing abusers.

The newest accusation concerns the abusive priest from the diocese of Essen named Peter Hullerman. It looks as though then Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich approved for Hullermann to be transferred to a rectory in Munich for therapy in January 1980, in the knowledge that he assaulted children in Essen.

Incidentally, when considering this case keep in mind that the Archdiocese of Munich at that time had 400 secular employees, more than 1,700 priests and more than 6,000 religious – monks and nuns. And that Fr Gerhard Gruber, the Vicar General at the time, has said the Archbishop, who’d spent most of his life in a university, “left many decisions to lower-level officials”. (Not everyone agrees with this. The Dominican Fr Thomas Doyle says: “Pope Benedict is a micro-manager”. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he, since he is a longstanding, and by his own admission inflammatory, critic of the Vatican.)

Anyway, in a catastrophe for the children who became his further victims, Hullermann was returned to pastoral ministry and had more contact with children. He was convicted for sex crimes in a Grafing parish in 1986. Amazingly, he was allowed to return to ministry even though he barely engaged with the treatment and only agreed to it to save his job.

How does this reflect on the Pope? Well it’s one thing to approve Hullermann’s accommodation in a rectory in Munich to undergo therapy, and another to say he can be released freely into a trusting parish with children. Fr Gruber, the Vicar General of the diocese, is the one who authorised Hullermann’s return to parish work with access to children, not, I think, the Pope. He has said this was a “serious mistake”. But he also said the Archbishop did not know and, as above, that he left decisions to lower-level officials. “The cardinal could not deal with everything,” Fr Gruber said.

Precisely what the future Pope was told is still not clear and may never be. But, at its worst, this aspect of the scandal is no worse and possibly less severe than the one that engulfed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor soon after he arrived at Westminster as Archbishop.

While Bishop of Arundel and Brighton he transferred an abuser priest, Michael Hill, to work as chaplain at Gatwick Airport. Hill had been suspended and the Church had been clearly warned by doctors and therapists that he was dangerous to young people.

He assaulted more boys, was finally convicted and served three years in prison (out of a five-year sentence) in 1997. In 2000 Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor said: “We were not aware at the time of [paedophilia's] addictive nature.”

It’s hard to say how the Munich scandal will pan out. What we can expect is more revelations from all over the world. But there’s a crucial distinction to be made, surely. There is such a thing as a mistake made in good faith. This does not deserve punishment. On the other hand you have dishonesty, deliberate negligence and incompetence; bishops should be punished for any of these failings.

About those who harm children, Christ’s teaching is explicit: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Acknowledgment to: Daily Telegraph

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Version: 17th June 2010