The Daily Telegraph‘s Andrew Brown provides a necessary corrective to the sensationalist reporting of the New York Times, which last Thursday splashed on A1 claims that the “Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Deaf Boys” — a headline, and a story, that was slanted in such a way as to make Pope Benedict XVI sound more responsible for the pedophile in question than the depraved priest’s own archbishop, Rembert Weakland. Referring to India Knight, a British journalist who recycled the Times story in even more tendentious terms, Brown writes,
She claims that [Lawrence] 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?
Not only has the secular press been exaggerating the role Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, played in all of this, but Archbishop Weakland’s culpability has been systematically downplayed. Weakland is hardly free from sexual scandal: he is a homosexual who payed $450,000 of diocesan funds to stave off a lawsuit from a former graduate student with whom he had an affair. Also, as Brown points out but the Times did not, Weakland “admitted routinely shredding copies of reports about ‘problem priests’ in his diocese” and “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.'”
To focus on Weakland and his politics and personal proclivities would, of course, change the narrative the media has been constructing — that is, a series of scandals we are supposed to attribute to a secretive, authoritarian, hypocritical, right-wing Church would suddenly be connected to liberals within the hierarchy who may have had personal as well as ideological reasons for shielding abusers. A large part of the context of these Church scandals has been dropped because it’s too politically incorrect to be dealt with, but here it is: in the decades when most of this priestly abuse was taking place, rather few people drew a sharp distinction between homosexuality per se and homosexuals inclined to target adolescents. Studies today suggest there really is a distinction, but before that became conventional wisdom, turning a blind eye to homosexuality in the priesthood almost necessarily meant turning a blind eye toward homosexual abusers. It may be true now that a homosexual priest would not feel any obligation to cover up for an abuser of pubescent boys, but was it true in decades past, when the two orientations were frequently conflated?
The secular world, by the way, still isn’t clear on how much it wants to stigmatize homosexual abuse of minors — the much lauded “Vagina Monologues,” after all, contain a passage in which a 13-year-old who has been seduced by a lesbian says, “If it was a rape, it was a good rape.” Blurred ethics apply to dubious consensual relations between adults as well: Salon reported the accusations against Weakland under the subhead, “the eminent cleric had a love affair with a younger man — but who was the real victim?” And before anyone mounts a high horse from which to judge the Church, he ought to consider how much dudgeon he feels over secular government’s failure to take to curtail rape within the penal and juvenile justice systems — abuses that, unlike priestly pedophilia, have been known to everyone in the political and chattering classes for decades. Some critics have said the Catholic Church should be more subject to outside supervision; but the secular world has dealt with its own abuse problem in a fashion at least as feckless as that of the Church.