William A. Donohue, Ph.D.
The CNN documentary, “What the Pope Knew,” which aired September 25, deserves a response.
The program begins with music and graphics that set the tone: those who think Pope Benedict XVI has been adept at combating priestly sexual abuse must realize that there is “a darker, more complicated story.” Dark, yes, but from CNN’s perch, the story is not all that complicated: the pope is guilty of “foot-dragging and, perhaps, obstruction.”
We learn from CNN host Gary Tuchman that “For decades, before he became pope, Joseph Ratzinger was a high-ranking Vatican official who, more than anyone else beside Pope John Paul, could have taken decisive action to stem the sexual abuse crisis.” Similarly, author David Gibson says the pope “always took the stalling tactic.”
It is simply not true that Ratzinger was in charge of this issue “for decades.” In fact, he wasn’t given the authority to police the sexual abuse problem until 2001. What is truly astonishing is that Tuchman concedes as much later in the program. After he notes that “By 2001, the sexual abuse crisis was beginning to engulf the Catholic Church,” he says, “The pope gave Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) the power to cut through the bureaucracy and handle all sexual abuse cases directly.”
In other words, Tuchman was incorrect the first time when he said that “for decades” Ratzinger “could have taken decisive action.” He couldn’t have been in charge “for decades” if he wasn’t given police powers until 2001 (he became pope in 2005).
Nowhere in the program is there any evidence that the pope was guilty of obstruction of justice. This is a serious charge—the most serious made in the course of the documentary. Yet to throw this out, without ever producing evidence to substantiate it, is malicious. It won’t cut it to say that he was “perhaps” guilty of obstruction. CNN intentionally planted this seed and never explicitly addressed the subject of obstruction of justice again.
Gibson’s quip that the pope “always took the stalling tactic” suggests the pope acted irresponsibly. Now this may play well with those unfamiliar with the process of determining innocence or guilt, but anyone who knows better will find his accusation flatulent at best, and unfair at worst. More than any institution in history, the Catholic Church’s development of canon law, which became the basis of many rights in civil law, has long championed the rights of the accused. Why is it that when suspected terrorists are afforded generous rights, over a period of several years, it is generally regarded as an example of America’s commitment to freedom, but when accused priests are given their day in court, charges of “stalling tactics” surface?
The program focuses on four miscreant priests. The first is Peter Hullermann. In 1986, he was convicted of sexually abusing boys while serving in Grafing, Germany. His case is central to the documentary because it questions the pope’s culpability.
After Hullermann was convicted, he was transferred to Munich for therapy. It should be noted that therapy was the preferred method for dealing with abusers at the time, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. Abusers were not seen, as they are today, as offenders deserving of punitive action; rather, they were seen as disturbed persons who could be rehabilitated via therapy. No matter, after his transfer, Hullermann was placed in a new parish.
The critical question is: Did Archbishop Ratzinger know that Hullermann was a convicted molester who was moved to another parish? We know he approved the transfer, but that’s about it. The Vatican maintains that it was Ratzinger’s deputy who placed Hullermann in the new parish.
Importantly, CNN makes no claim to the contrary. Moreover, when the New York Timesbroke this story in March, the best it could do in establishing culpability was to say that Ratzinger’s office “was copied on a memo.” The Times also said that Church officials said the memo was routine and “unlikely to have landed on the archbishop’s desk.”
So if CNN has no evidence tying the pope to Hullermann, why bother trotting out this story one more time? And why does reporter John Allen imply that the pope knew about the transfer to the new parish? He has no evidence, either. Worse is Gibson. “If Cardinal Ratzinger in Munich did not know about Father Peter Hullermann, he should have. That’s one of the things that an archbishop does. You always know where your priests are.”
In the real world, no leader of any large-scale organization can possibly know where his employees are. It’s not as though priests, or school teachers, walk around with a GPS device around their necks, allowing bishops and school administrators to track their every move. For example, how many school superintendents know that a sexually abusing teacher in their district has been transferred to another district? How many heads of multinational corporations know where their employees are and why they were transferred? We know one thing: in 1980, there were 1,717 priests in the Munich archdiocese.
Gibson then goes for the jugular by asking, “How many other abusive priests may have come under his jurisdiction while he was in Munich as archbishop? We don’t know.” But we don’t need to know. All we need to know is that Gibson has indicted the pope by conjecture. CNN did not make the charge because it had no data finding the pope guilty, so it simply passed the baton to Gibson to lay the suspicion.
The case of Father Stephen Kiesle was included not to prove guilt on the part of the pope, but to add to the suspicion that he did not do enough.
CNN reports that Kiesle’s bishop, John Cummins, wanted him defrocked in 1981 after he was convicted of sexually abusing boys. Vatican officials, however, wanted more information; Cardinal Ratzinger had taken over as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a week after the Vatican office made its ruling. Following Church norms that existed at the time, Ratzinger said he could not defrock Kiesle because no one under 40 could be laicized, and he was in his thirties. Kiesle could have been ordered to stand trial, but because he was so close to turning 40 (and a trial is not a speedy process), a decision was made to wait. On February 13, 1987, the day before Kiesle’s 40th birthday, he was defrocked.
What CNN did not report is that Kiesle was removed from ministry following his conviction. Nor did it mention the curious fact that in 1982, while still technically a priest, Kiesle married the mother of a girl he had abused in 1973. But to mention such an oddity may have shifted blame away from the pope, thus muddying the bottom line.
Father Lawrence Murphy, who allegedly molested some 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin in the 1950s, is covered in depth. But it didn’t go far enough. What was omitted is startling.
Tuchman reports that “Father Murphy’s case would come to the direct attention of Cardinal Ratzinger.” (My emphasis.) The viewer then waits in vain for evidence that Murphy’s case came to the direct attention of the pope. There isn’t any. We know that Terry Kohut, who was one of Murphy’s’ victims, wrote to Ratzinger’s office, but neither CNN nor the New York Times (which first reported on this story) has ever provided evidence that Ratzinger was personally involved in this case.
Jeffrey Anderson, who has made tens of millions suing the Catholic Church, and hates the Church with a passion, is asked point blank by Tuchman, “Do you think Cardinal Ratzinger knew about the case of Father Murphy?” Anderson parses his words in textbook lawyerly fashion. “Well, we know the letters went to his secretary,