The Pope Is Not Above the Law
The crimes within the Catholic Church demand justice.
One by one, as I predicted, the pathetic excuses of Joseph Ratzinger's apologists evaporate before our eyes. It was said until recently that when the Rev. Peter Hullermann was found to be a vicious pederast in 1980, the man who is now pope had no personal involvement in his subsequent transfer to his own diocese or in his later unimpeded career as a rapist and a molester. But now we find that the psychiatrist to whom the church turned for "therapy" was adamant that Hullermann never be allowed to go near children ever again. We also find that Ratzinger was one of those to whom the memo about Hullermann's transfer was actually addressed. All attempts to place the blame on a loyal subordinate, Ratzinger's vicar general, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber, have predictably failed. According to a recent report, "the transfer of Father Hullermann from Essen would not have been a routine matter, experts said." Either that—damning enough in itself—or it perhaps would have been a routine matter, which is even worse. Certainly the pattern—of finding another parish with fresh children for the priest to assault—is the one that has become horribly "routine" ever since and became standard practice when Ratzinger became a cardinal and was placed in charge of the church's global response to clerical pederasty.
So now a new defense has had to be hastily improvised. It is argued that, during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, Ratzinger was more preoccupied with doctrinal questions than with mere disciplinary ones. Of course, of course: The future pope had his eyes fixed on ethereal and divine matters and could not be expected to concern himself with parish-level atrocities. This cobbled-up apologia actually repays a littlebit of study. What exactly were these doctrinal issues? Well, apart from punishing a priest who celebrated a Mass at an anti-war demonstration—which incidentally does seem to argue for a "hands-on" approach to individual clergymen—Ratzinger's chief concern appears to have been that of first communion and first confession. Over the previous decade, it had become customary in Bavaria to subject small children to their first communion at a tender age but to wait a year until they made their first confession. It was a matter of whether they were old enough to understand. Enough of this liberalism, said Ratzinger, the first confession should come in the same year as the first communion. One priest, the Rev. Wilfried Sussbauer, reports that he wrote to Ratzinger expressing misgivings about this and received "an extremely biting letter" in response.
So it seems that 1) Ratzinger was quite ready to take on individual priests who gave him any trouble, and 2) he was very firm on one crucial point of doctrine: Get them young. Tell them in their infancy that it is they who are the sinners. Instill in them the necessary sense of guilt. This is not at all without relevance to the disgusting scandal into which the pope has now irretrievably plunged the church he leads. Almost every episode in this horror show has involved small children being seduced and molested in the confessional itself. To take the most heart-rending cases to have emerged recently, namely the torment of deaf children in the church-run schools in Wisconsin and Verona, Italy, it is impossible to miss the calculated manner in which the predators used the authority of the confessional in order to get their way. And again the identical pattern repeats itself: Compassion is to be shown only to the criminals. Ratzinger's own fellow clergy in Wisconsin wrote to him urgently—by this time he was a cardinal in Rome, supervising the global Catholic cover-up of rape and torture—beseeching him to remove the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who had comprehensively wrecked the lives of as many as 200 children who could not communicate their misery except in sign language. And no response was forthcoming until Father Murphy himself appealed to Ratzinger for mercy—and was granted it.
For Ratzinger, the sole test of a good priest is this: Is he obedient and discreet and loyal to the traditionalist wing of the church? We have seen this in his other actions as pope, notably in the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops who were members of the so-called Society of St. Pius X, that group of extreme-right-wing schismatics founded by Father Marcel Lefebvre and including the Holocaust-denying Richard Williamson. We saw it when he was a cardinal, defending the cultish and creepy Legion of Christ, whose fanatical leader managed to father some children as well as to shield the molestation of many more. And we see it today, when countless rapists and pederasts are being unmasked. One of those accused in the Verona deaf-school case is the late archbishop of the city, Giuseppe Carraro. Next up, if our courts can find time, will be the Rev. Donald McGuire, a serial offender against boys who was also the confessor and "spiritual director" for Mother Teresa. (He, too, found the confessional to be a fine and private place and made extensive use of it.)
This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain "confessors," who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck. Nor can it afford to admit that the church regularly abandoned the children and did its best to protect and sometimes even promote their tormentors. So instead it is whiningly and falsely asserting that all charges against the pope—none of them surfacing except from within the Catholic community—are part of a plan to embarrass him.
This hasn't been true so far, but it ought to be true from now on. This grisly little man is not above or outside the law. He is the titular head of a small state. We know more and more of the names of the children who were victims and of the pederasts who were his pets. This is a crime under any law (as well as a sin), and crime demands not sickly private ceremonies of "repentance," or faux compensation by means of church-financed payoffs, but justice and punishment. The secular authorities have been feeble for too long but now some lawyers and prosecutors are starting to bestir themselves. I know some serious men of law who are discussing what to do if Benedict tries to make his proposed visit to Britain in the fall. It's enough. There has to be a reckoning, and it should start now.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.