During Good Friday Mass this year, the Preacher to the Papal Household compared criticism of the Catholic Church, over its handling of abuse allegations, to historical persecution of Jews. He later apologized, but that didn't stop the dean of cardinals at the Vatican from referring – on Easter Sunday – to media coverage of the scandals as "petty gossip." National Catholic Reporter correspondent John Allen says the Church’s defensiveness and finger-pointing is only hurting its image.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: At the Vatican, in his own Easter message, Pope Benedict also did not discuss the sex abuse cover-up controversy swirling around the Catholic Church. But this holiday comes three days after a Vatican preacher likened criticism of the Pope’s leadership to a tax on Jews before the Holocaust.
BOB GARFIELD: Good Friday kicked off yet another decidedly bad week for the Catholic Church this year - a hebdomas horribilis, if you will. During mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Preacher to the Papal Household compared criticism of the Church over its handling of abuse allegations to the historical persecution of Jews. He later apologized but that didn't stop a senior cardinal at the Vatican from referring, on Easter Sunday, to media coverage of the scandals as, quote, “petty gossip.” John Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent with The National Catholic Reporter. He reminds us that’s not all that went wrong for the Church last week.
JOHN ALLEN: Well, you know, in the news business we say that a story has legs, if fresh developments keep it alive. And the truth is this story has more legs than a centipede. In just the last week, I mean, what we've seen is, first of all, a rash of senior Church officials, including Vatican cardinals, who have in one way or another gone on record suggesting that there is a media campaign against the Pope. We have seen a Catholic bishop in Norway who has been forced to resign after admitting that he sexually abused an altar boy 20 years ago. We have seen two cases of priests from the United States who were credibly accused of sexual abuse. Their cases ended up in the Vatican and either nothing happened or it took so long for something to happen that critics are suggesting that it’s effectively meaningless. We have a growing conversation in England among certain human rights groups who are actually proposing that when Benedict arrives in the UK in September that he ought to be served with an arrest warrant, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, for his alleged role in a global conspiracy to protect pedophile priests. We have also seen an announcement from a group of sexual abuse victims, including two of the victims who met with Benedict when he was in the United States in 2008, announcing plans effectively to lead a march on Rome in October. Their idea is to bring some 50,000 victims of sexual abuse directly to St. Peter’s Square in order to, more or less, drop this problem on the Pope’s doorstep.
BOB GARFIELD: And the Pope is right at the center of a lot of the controversy, as he has been for a good part of his papacy. Take me a trip down that bad memory lane.
JOHN ALLEN: It’s been a rocky road, Bob, for sure. I mean, we can wind the clock back to 2006, when the Pope gave a speech at Regensburg in Germany which infuriated Muslim opinion around the world when he appeared to link the Prophet Muhammad with violence. A couple of years ago, there was a case in which he lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist Catholic bishops, including one who was a Holocaust denier. That, of course, caused an explosion in Catholic-Jewish relations. Last March, while the Pope was on the way to Africa on the papal plane, he made a comment to the effect that condoms actually make the problem of AIDS worse. That too triggered a cause celebre. In fact, among other things, the Spanish government shipped off a million condoms to Africa in protest.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, strictly speaking, the Pope is not supposed to be a politician measuring his every word, but as a practical matter he is a political figure on the world stage. And, I guess looking at it, you know, as cold-bloodedly as I can, he’s kind of a, for a politician, a PR disaster.
JOHN ALLEN: I think you could probably take “kind of” out of that sentence and be a little closer to the truth. I mean, look, the practical reality is, first of all, culturally speaking, the Vatican thinks in centuries, which means it is not crafting its decisions on the basis of today’s headlines. And it doesn't think about communication strategy the way that other institutions do. Add to that the fact that the present Pope, Benedict the 16th, is an academic. I mean, he is much more given to the life of the mind than he is to playing on the world stage. And then, I think, third, whenever there is a perception that the Pope is under attack, there is a kind of genetic instinct in the Catholic world to sort of circle the wagons and, and protect the boss. You know, you wrap those three things up together and they are quite often a prescription for seeming terribly tone-deaf about how to project a positive message for the Church.
BOB GARFIELD: All right now, I also don't want to trivialize the horror of child abuse by suggesting that it’s somehow just a PR matter for the Church, but what strikes me about this latest outburst of scandal is that Pope Benedict has really been at the forefront of the reform in the Church’s behavior, with respect to child abuse allegations. To say the least, the Church has squandered whatever political capital it has gained by him, you know, at long last after centuries, dealing with this problem forthrightly.
JOHN ALLEN: You've put your finger on what is, for me, the central irony of this storyline, which is that really from 2001 forward there is no figure at the senior level of the Catholic Church who has done more to promote an aggressive response to the problem of sexual abuse by clergy than the present Pope. I mean, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in charge of the Vatican’s response to this crisis, he is the guy who kick started the wheels of justice into motion to remove predator priests from the priesthood. As Pope, he is the first Pope ever to meet with victims. He is the first Pope ever to apologize in his own name for the crisis. He is the first Pope who sort of broke the Vatican’s wall of silence and, in effect, he has embraced a zero tolerance policy. And yet, you’re quite right that that story has really dropped out of sight amid coverage of the cases that have recently come to light, because the response from Church officials, not just the Vatican but certainly including the Vatican, has created a public impression of kind of denial and finger pointing at the media, which makes it really impossible for them to successfully mount any kind of defense of the way that the Pope has responded to this.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I have to ask you, if it is indeed obvious that for truth and reconciliation to take place first you have to have truth, because in the eyes of the Church the Pope is infallible, it somehow becomes ecclesiastically impossible to acknowledge that he may have in his record some degree of culpability?
JOHN ALLEN: Well here, Bob, I think you have to distinguish between official Catholic theology and popular Catholic psychology. In terms of the official theology, a pope is infallible only when he teaches definitively, in union with all the bishops of the world, on matters of faith or morals. So, you know, when a Pope says there are three persons in the Trinity, that is presumed to be infallible, but that writ of infallibility doesn't mean that every judgment call he makes is somehow protected from error. And, in fact, you know, when popes come up for sainthood, the Vatican will routinely say that declaring a pope a saint is not the same thing as ratifying every policy choice during his pontificate. So, in principle, there would be no impediment to acknowledging managerial or administrative mistakes. But in terms of popular Catholic psychology, I think that’s the bridge that is yet to be crossed. And I think what happened eight years ago, when this crisis erupted in the United States – and you may remember that in the first wave of commentary from bishops here in the States there was a tendency to deny that anything had gone wrong, to minimize the crisis and to blame the media for bringing it up in the first place, and on the back of hard experience, bishops and other Church officials had to learn a new vocabulary for talking about how the Church corporately had failed and was in need of reform. Well, that bridge has been crossed. What they don't yet have is a similar vocabulary for talking about the mistakes of a pope. That, I think, is precisely the learning curve that the Catholic Church is on at the moment, that the real question, the drama of all this, is are they going to complete that learning curve in time to dig themselves out from this mess or at the end is it going to be too little, too late?
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much for joining us.
JOHN ALLEN: It was a pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: John Allen is a senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter.