Vatican Shocker

Pope Benedict XVI's Tenure Marred by Human-Rights Failures

Joseph Ratzinger—a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI—should have retired when the church’s sex-abuse scandal erupted—but he continued to protect predator priests, writes Geoffrey Robertson.

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The resignation by Joseph Ratzinger, from his office as Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Head of State, was merely expedient—he has become too old to cope. (The queen and Rupert Murdoch might usefully follow his example). It would have been both astonishing and courageous, a few years ago, had it been offered in atonement for the atrocity to which he had for 30 years turned a blind eye—the rape, buggery, and molestation of tens of thousands of small boys in priestly care. Instead of this measure of accountability, he has refused even to change canon law, so as to force all pedophile priests to be defrocked and to require all bishops to hand over the evidence for their crimes to law-enforcement authorities.

The pope’s “command responsibility” for a crime against humanity—as widespread and systematic child abuse surely is—goes back to 1981 when he was appointed Prefect (i.e. Head) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican body that is in charge of disciplining errant priests. For the next 24 years, until he became pope, he presided over a system in which the CDF regularly refused to allow bishops to defrock child molesters, and knew of and approved their transfer to other parishes and often to other countries, where they usually re-offended. Although the CDF files are a closely guarded secret, letters from Cardinal Ratzinger have emerged in several U.S. court cases, always protective of rapist priests.

The case of Father Lawrence Murphy, for example, who molested 200 deaf boys at a Catholic school in Wisconsin, (the subject of Mea Maxima Culpa, which began airing last week on HBO) led to anxious communication between local church officials and Ratzinger, who emphasized “the need for secrecy” because he was worried about “increasing scandal.” Although he knew Murphy to be guilty, the cardinal ordered the secret proceedings to end so that the guilty priest could die a respected member of his brotherhood.

Father Stephen Kiesle, convicted of tying up and sexually assaulting boys, was at Ratzinger’s insistence (and against the wishes of his bishop) kept in holy orders and allowed to continue working with children whom he duly abused. Ratzinger had claimed that “the good of the Universal Church” justified its continued cover-up of the abuse and its continued employment of the abuser.

As father Hans Kung, the eminent theologian, put it in his open letter to Catholic bishops in 2010, “there is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Ratzinger’s policy at the CDF had always been to keep child abuse secret, even though that meant forgiving the offender. The worse case was that of Father Maciel, a bigamist, pederast, and drug-taker who raped his own children but had become a close friend of John Paul II and in 2004 was invited to Rome for a papal blessing. Ratzinger was in possession of all the evidence about Maciel’s regular debauchery with his young novitiates, but refused to act. Even after he became pope, Ratzinger refused to defrock this monster priest or provide the evidence against him to the police. Instead, he merely “invited” Maciel to retire and lead a quiet life in the U.S., away from media attention.

Ratzinger undoubtedly loathes such men, but he was always the ostrich pope, the academic who kept his head in the sand until the storm hit—in Boston (2002), Ireland (2009), and now all over the Catholic world.

Pope Benedict’s Vatican has been an enemy of human rights. The fiction that this religious enclave is a “state” (its “statehood” cobbled together in a squalid deal in 1929 between Mussolini and Pius XI) enables it to appear at U.N. conferences and to veto initiatives for family planning, contraception, or any form of “gender equality.” Benedict himself has decried homosexuality as “evil.” He ruled that women have no right to choose, even to avoid pregnancies that result from rape or incest; IVF is wrong (because it begins with masturbation); condom use, even to avoid HIV/AIDS within marriage, must never be countenanced.

Ratzinger himself began the Vatican’s attack on the U.N. in 1998 because its “new world order” envisaged population reduction, what he termed the sinister “ideology of women’s empowerment.” There is no denying that the Vatican has been a force in international affairs, rallying the Catholic countries of Latin America to make common cause on moral issues with Islamist states like Libya and Iran—for example, to veto the U.N.’s projected “right to sexual health.”

As for international justice, Ratzinger has been its sworn enemy. When the U.K. dared to detain Augusto Pinochet, he went public and passionately defended the old torturer’s right to return to Chile. He refused to sign up to the International Criminal Court, and has helped Robert Mugabe and his shopaholic wife to avoid EU travel bans by inviting them to travel to the Vatican, which is not an EU member (and cannot join because it is not a democracy).

As head of a state—even such a make-believe state as the Vatican—Joseph Ratzinger has absolute immunity from legal action. But as ex-king Farouk famously discovered (when a court ordered him to pay for apparel acquired when he was king), this immunity is not the same after you retire. There are many victims of priests permitted to stay in holy orders by Cardinal Ratzinger after their propensity to molest was known, and they would like to sue him for damages for negligence. If he chooses a retirement home outside the Vatican, the local court may decide that they have a case.