We Can't Let the Pope Decide Who's a Criminal
Bringing priestly offenders and the church's enablers to justice.
In 2002, according to devout Catholic columnist Ross Douthat, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke the following words to an audience in Spain:
I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign ... to discredit the church.
On April 10, the New York Times—the apparent center of this "planned campaign"—reprinted a copy of a letter personally signed by Ratzinger in 1985. The letter urged lenience in the case of the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, who had tied up and sexually tormented two small boys on church property in California. Kiesle's superiors had written to Ratzinger's office in Rome, beseeching him to remove the criminal from the priesthood. The man who is now his holiness the pope was full of urgent moral advice in response. "The good of the Universal Church," he wrote, should be uppermost in the mind. It should be understood that "particularly regarding the young age" of Father Kiesle, there might be great "detriment" caused "within the community of Christ's faithful" if he were to be removed. The good father was then aged 38. His victims—not that their tender ages of 11 and 13 seem to have mattered—were children. In the ensuing decades, Kiesle went on to ruin the lives of several more children and was finally jailed by the secular authorities on a felony molestation charge in 2004. All this might have been avoided if he had been handed over to justice right away and if the Oakland diocese had called the police rather than written to the office in Rome where it was Ratzinger's job to muffle and suppress such distressing questions.
Contrast this to the even more appalling case of the school for deaf children in Wisconsin where the Rev. Lawrence Murphy was allowed unhindered access to more than 200 unusually defenseless victims. Again the same pattern: repeated petitions from the local diocese to have the criminal "unfrocked" (an odd term when you think about it) met with stony indifference from Ratzinger's tightly run bureaucracy. Finally a begging letter to Ratzinger from the filthy Father Murphy himself, complaining of the frailty of his health and begging to be buried with full priestly honors, in his frock. Which he was. At last, a human plea not falling on deaf ears! (You should pardon the expression.)
So in one case a child rapist escaped judgment and became an enabled reoffender because he was too young. In the next, a child rapist was sheltered after a career of sex torture of disabled children because he was too old! Such compassion.
It must be noted, also, that all the letters from diocese to Ratzinger and from Ratzinger to diocese were concerned only with one question: Can this hurt Holy Mother Church? It was as if the children were irrelevant or inconvenient (as with the case of the raped boys in Ireland forced to sign confidentiality agreements by the man who is still the country's cardinal). Note, next, that there was a written, enforced, and consistent policy of avoiding contact with the law. And note, finally, that there was a preconceived Ratzinger propaganda program of blaming the press if any of the criminal conduct or obstruction of justice ever became known.
The obscene culmination of this occurred on Good Friday, when the pope sat through a sermon delivered by an underling in which the exposure of his church's crimes was likened to persecution and even—this was a gorgeous detail—to the pogroms against the Jews. I have never before been accused of taking part in a pogrom or lynching, let alone joining a mob that is led by raped deaf children, but I'm proud to take part in this one.
The keyword is Law. Ever since the church gave refuge to Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to spare him the inconvenience of answering questions under oath, it has invited the metastasis of this horror. And now the tumor has turned up just where you might have expected—moving from the bosom to the very head of the church. And by what power or right is the fugitive cardinal shielded? Only by the original agreement between Benito Mussolini and the papacy that created the pseudo-state of Vatican City in the Lateran Pact of 1929, Europe's last remaining monument to the triumph of Fascism. This would be bad enough, except that Ratzinger himself is now exposed as being personally as well as institutionally responsible for obstructing justice and protecting and enabling pederasts.
One should not blame only the church here. Where was American law enforcement during the decades when children were prey? Where was international law while the Vatican became a place of asylum and a source of protection for those who licensed or carried out the predation? Page through any of the reports of child-rape and torture from Ireland, Australia, the United States, Germany—and be aware that there is much worse to come. Where is it written that the Roman Catholic Church is the judge in its own case? Above or beyond the law? Able to use private courts? Allowed to use funds donated by the faithful to pay hush money to the victims or their families?
There are two choices. We can swallow the shame, roll up the First Amendment, and just admit that certain heinous crimes against innocent citizens are private business or are not crimes if they are committed by priests and excused by popes. Or perhaps we can shake off the awful complicity that reports this ongoing crime as a "problem" for the church and not as an outrage to the victims and to the judicial system. Isn't there one district attorney or state attorney general in America who can decide to represent the children? Nobody in Eric Holder's vaunted department of no-immunity justice? If not, then other citizens will have to approach the bench. In London, as already reported by the Sunday Times and the Press Association, some experienced human-rights lawyers will be challenging Ratzinger's right to land in Britain with immunity in September. If he gets away with it, then he gets away with it, and the faithful can be proud of their supreme leader. But this we can promise, now that his own signature has been found on Father Kiesle's permission to rape: There will be only one subject of conversation until Ratzinger calls off his visit, and only one subject if he decides to try to go through with it. In either event, he will be remembered for only one thing long after he is dead.
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 L'Osservatore Romano Vatican/Getty Images.