Does anyone remember the Catholic s-x abuse scandal at the Vienna Boys Choir? According to The Age of  March 19, the choir “has been caught up in accusations that pedophile priests systematically abused their choristers.” The same day’s Australian reported that “the crisis over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has intensified” as a result of the choir scandal.

The Australian story was a beat-up, The Age’s an outright fabrication. The Vienna Boys Choir is a private organisation, and the complaints of abuse were made against teachers and older choristers, not priests. Once this became apparent, the media dropped the story: the choristers’ suffering ceased to be interesting without a church angle. But there have been no apologies, retractions or Media Watch denunciations.

If ordinary Catholics elected popes, I would not have voted for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The urbane Carlo Martini, of Milan, was much more to my taste than the Panzer Kardinal from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And while he has not started the heresy hunts feared by his critics and desired by his supporters, Pope Benedict XVI has made some very poor decisions.

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One of the worst was to approve the lifting of the 1980s excommunication of four bishops, one of whom is a Holocaust denier. In his rather lame apology, Benedict conceded that he could have found out the bishop’s views simply by consulting the internet: “I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”

So it is understandable that many observers have treated the rash of negative stories about Benedict and child abuse as examples of the same problem. The impression that the Vatican has its collective head in the sand has been reinforced by daft comments blaming homosexuality for child abuse and comparing criticism of Benedict to anti-semitism. But where is the evidence that the Pope is guilty of anything worse than bad PR?

Smoking guns

Bestselling atheist author Richard Dawkins wants the Pope prosecuted for aiding and abetting child abuse. His “smoking gun” is the case of the Californian priest Stephen Kiesle, who actually asked to be defrocked after s-xually assaulting two children in 1978. Ratzinger wrote to Kiesle’s bishop, who supported the request, in 1985 saying he needed more time to give the matter “careful consideration”.

Why did Ratzinger need to consider the request, Dawkins asks? And why didn’t he report Kiesle to the police? The answer is that Kiesle had already been reported to the police, convicted and sentenced. After completing his sentence, Kiesle left the priesthood and wrote to the CDF asking to be formally defrocked. Every year, some of the church’s 410,000 priests quit.

They don’t need Vatican permission: they can simply walk out. But they do need to be laicised if they want to get married in a Catholic church. Ordinarily this is not a problem, but it was in Kiesle’s case, because his bishop cited the sexual assaults as a factor in favour of laicisation.

Ratzinger’s reply to the bishop has been misrepresented by selective quotation. It begins by referring to “the matter of the removal of all priestly burdens from … Kiesle”, making it clear that the CDF was being asked to grant a favour, not a punishment. Ratzinger then says “it is necessary to consider the good of the universal church together with [i.e. not just] the petitioner [Kiesle]”, and that the CDF “is also unable to make light of the detriment that the granting of the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner.”

The “detriment” is the problem created by rewarding a convicted pedophile with permission to marry, which also explains the reference to Kiesle’s age.

Kiesle was defrocked 15 months later, and married shortly afterwards. He abused another child in 1995 and was sentenced to six years’ jail. So Ratzinger’s concerns were well-founded. The suggestion that Ratzinger covered anything up or endangered children, however, is completely groundless.

What about the case of Father Lawrence Murphy of Wisconsin, though? Didn’t Ratzinger cover up for him? The first answer is that the documents in the Murphy case show that Ratzinger played no part in any of the decisions. The second answer is that his underlings in the CDF didn’t cover anything up or endanger any children either.

Murphy abused deaf children at a Milwaukee residential school in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, some of his victims complained to the police, who declined to prosecute: it is not clear why, but they may have been barred by the statute of limitations. Murphy was dismissed from his post at the orphanage and went to live with his mother in Superior, at the opposite end of Wisconsin.

Murphy’s victims did not rest, and in 1996 persuaded the Archbishop of Milwaukee to begin proceedings to defrock him. Unfortunately, Murphy had a cunning canon lawyer. He argued that the proceedings were invalid, because they had been started outside the church’s statute of limitations, and that Murphy should have been prosecuted in Superior, where he lived, not Milwaukee. The Milwaukee ecclesiastical court accepted these arguments, so the Diocese of Superior began proceedings against Murphy. It wrote to the CDF seeking an extension of the time limit for prosecutions; Murphy sent a letter opposing the request and pleading poor health.

The CDF replied, saying there was no need for an extension of time, as there is no time limit for prosecuting offences such as Murphy’s. It also asked whether, given Murphy’s health and the difficulty in prosecuting offences from so long ago, less formal disciplinary measures would be appropriate. The Bishop of Superior replied that he intended to proceed with the prosecution, but by this time Murphy’s health had deteriorated, and he died three months later. In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee abandoned the earlier proceedings that had been found to be invalid.

There was no cover-up by Ratzinger or the CDF: Murphy had been reported to the police a quarter of a century earlier. And no more children were put at risk, because Murphy had ceased priestly duties. All that happened was that the proceedings against Murphy were transferred from Milwaukee to Superior, the CDF queried whether a prosecution was still appropriate under the circumstances, and Murphy died before a verdict was reached.

A pattern develops

There is a pattern developing here, but it is one of media misrepresentation, not of cover-ups by the Pope. In fact the current “scandal” started in the same way. Newspapers reported that two priests in the German diocese of Regensburg had been jailed for child abuse, one in the 1950s and another in the 1970s. Amid attempts to suggest that the Pope’s brother, who directed the Regensburg Cathedral choir, might have known about the abuse, the media missed the central point. The two priests were prosecuted by the police, convicted and sent to jail. It then emerged that Catholic and Protestant clergy in other parts of Germany were also jailed for s-xual assaults on children.

The core of the American and Irish scandals was the fact that clerical child abuse was covered up. Instead of being prosecuted by the police, offenders were sent for therapy, pronounced cured and returned to duty, often to re-offend. The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the cover-ups in Boston: no beat-ups were needed because there was a genuine scandal. But the evidence from Germany undermines suggestions of an international conspiracy to avoid police prosecutions.

Only one of the “smoking guns” against Benedict involves a priest who was not reported to the police. This was Peter Hullermann, who s-xually assaulted three boys in the German diocese of Essen in 1979. The documents in the case have been released to the media, including the minutes of a meeting with the victims’ parents. These record that the parents did not want the case referred to police, to protect their children. Perhaps this was really a cover-up, but alternatively the parents may have had a sincere desire to shield their children from further trauma.

Hullermann was sent for therapy in Munich, where he was allowed to return to parish duties against the advice of his treating psychiatrist. These decisions were made by the Munich personnel director, a Father Fahr, and the diocesan vicar-general, Father Gruber. The decision to accept Hullermann required the approval of Munich’s diocesan council, which consisted of Archbishop Ratzinger and his senior officials.

Fahr did not attend the council meeting, but sent a memo stating that a young priest needed “medical-psychotherapeutic treatment in Munich” and a place to live with “an understanding colleague”.

The diocesan council approved the request. Gruber later wrote another memo recording Hullermann’s return to parish duties and copied it to Ratzinger, but it did not mention the psychiatrist’s advice. Neither memo provided any information alerting Ratzinger to the fact that Hullermann was a pedophile. Some years later, after Ratzinger had left Munich, Hullermann was transferred to another Bavarian diocese, where he re-offended.

This does appear to be a case of gross, if not criminal, negligence by Munich diocesan officials, and a cover-up as well. But Ratzinger was a victim of the cover-up, not a participant. The documents show that he was kept in the dark about Hullermann, and Gruber has confirmed this (Fahr is dead). While Gruber might be suspected of covering for his boss, the same cannot be said of the psychiatrist, who is still angry about the affair. But he also says Ratzinger knew nothing about what was going on.

The case against Ratzinger rests solely on claims that he should somehow have known what happened, when the documentary and witness evidence confirms that he didn’t. It may be worth mentioning that in 1980 the Archdiocese of Munich had 2.2 million parishioners, 1700 priests, 750 brothers and 5800 nuns: even a micro-manager could not keep track of everything.

Unpopularity is not a crime

So how much evidence is there against Benedict in total? None at all. It is true that lots of people, including many Catholics, dislike the Pope. But being unpopular is not a crime. Indeed, the real test of the integrity of a legal system is the ability to be fair to those we dislike, to judge them on the evidence rather than our prejudices. Evidence, a concept Richard Dawkins used to be very keen on when he was a scientist, does not mean op-ed pieces in newspapers or blogs, but facts tending to suggest guilt.

But instead of judgement on the evidence, we get reportage such as that of Johann Hari, a staff writer for Britain’s Independent. Hari says there has been “an international conspiracy to protect child-rapists”, and that “Joseph Ratzinger was at the heart of this policy for decades”. Hari’s smoking gun is a 1962 Vatican directive called “Crimen Sollicitationis”, which is analysed in chapter four of the Murphy Report, the inquiry into the mis-handling of clerical sex abuse in Dublin that reported last year.

The Vatican document, which actually dates from 1922, provided procedures for prosecuting priests accused of various offences, including child abuse. The scandal in Dublin arose because these procedures were not followed. “The penal process of canon law was for a period of years set aside in favour of a purely ‘pastoral’ approach, which was, in the commission’s view, wholly ineffective as a means of controlling clerical child sexual abuse.”

Compare Hari’s take on the same question: “Here’s what we are sure of. By 1962 it was becoming clear to the Vatican that a significant number of its priests were r-ping children. Rather than root it out, they issued a secret order called ‘Crimen Sollicitationis’ ordering bishops to swear the victims to secrecy and move the offending priest on to another parish.”

The Independent is a respected newspaper, but Hari’s smear is worthy of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. This is not another clumsy comparison with anti-semitism. While Jews were Streicher’s main target, he also ran a long campaign against the “immorality” of the Catholic clergy. This campaign climaxed in 1937, when the government closed most of Germany’s Catholic schools. More than 200,000 Catholics left the church, many religious orders were shut down and hundreds of priests sent to concentration camps.

In the end, 21 clergy out of a nationwide body of 20,000 were convicted of child abuse. Some were probably guilty, but Streicher and Goebbels convinced Germans that there were thousands of abusers, all linked by a conspiracy directed from the Vatican.

The historical analogy should not be pressed too far. The current attacks on Benedict are not being co-ordinated by anyone. Some media players are activated by malice, but most are just following the herd, chasing the biggest “scalp” around. But Der Stürmer is relevant because it reminds us of the importance of journalistic standards. Smear campaigns are wrong, even when directed against people we don’t like.

Paul Mees is senior lecturer in planning at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. His new book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age (Earthscan, 2010) is not about religion.

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