April 5, 2010

It is not necessarily a bad thing that major media are asking questions about what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger knew and didn’t know and how he acted and did not act in sexual abuse cases under his purview before he became pope. Once there was even one mishandled case of clergy sexual abuse discovered during his stint as archbishop of Munich, it was inevitable that questions would be asked.

That such questions are asked while Pope Benedict is alive is better than if they only arose decades after his death. The pope and other people familiar with the situation can respond and set the record straight. We need only recall the difficulty in responding to accusations that Pope Pius XII was soft on the Holocaust, which only began after Pope Pius’ death, to see how much easier it is to deal with accusations about events that are within living memory.

The Church’s first task must be to achieve complete transparency. Unfortunately, a legacy of cover-up of sexual abuse cases makes it difficult to establish that the apparent transparency in the current situation is credible.

That having been said, media coverage of Ratzinger’s alleged involvement in abuse cases in Munich and Milwaukee has more than a whiff of a witch-hunt. The New York Times, for example, has accused Ratzinger, during his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of intervening to prevent an abusing priest in Milwaukee, Father Lawrence Murphy, from facing penalties for abusing minors. Based on evidence provided by The Times, the story’s conclusion is flat-out false.

In the Munich case, there is no evidence that the future pope had anything to do with reassigning an abusing priest to pastoral ministry. The decision, made in a massive diocese, was the responsibility of another diocesan official.

The media questioning — at least in the Munich case – is reasonable, given the pope’s high public standing. But the reporting needs to reflect the evidence uncovered and not cast unjustified innuendos.

Such innuendos are casting a pall over the current pontiff, a man who has done more than anyone at the Vatican to bring transparency, firmness and accountability to the Church’s handling of the ongoing abuse crisis.

The problem with such media investigation is that when mud is thrown, some invariably sticks in the public mind to the subject of the investigation. The media is not a court and it does not declare anyone innocent. It pursues its investigation until it can pursue it no further and then walks away.

The consequences of tarnishing the reputation of the pope are profound, not merely for the pope or “the institution,” but for humanity as a whole. When the questions end and the pope’s integrity remains untouched, major media must find a way to say, “We find no guilt in this man.”

Glen Argan