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Vatican Deflects Charges of Covering for Child Abusers

March 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff talks to David Gibson, religion writer for Politics Daily, as charges of misconduct mount in Catholic dioceses around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for more on this story, we are joined by David Gibson, the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.” He covers religion for

David Gibson, there are now so many allegations coming to the surface. Help us understand the scope of all this.

DAVID GIBSON, author, “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World”: Well, Judy, this really has two aspects to it.

One is the — the European-wide crisis, which really began several years ago and culminated in — in — last year with several government investigative reports in Ireland. And the pope recently, a few weeks ago, had a kind of summit meeting with all the Irish bishops in the Vatican to address this.

But, since then, even in those recent weeks, you have had this tsunami, as an Austrian cardinal called it, this tsunami of revelations, of allegations, from the Netherlands, to Switzerland, to Austria, and now to Germany, the pope’s own home — homeland, and where he was archbishop of Munich for several years in the late 1970s.

So, now it’s really this European-wide element that has come to the pope’s own doorstep.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you have the sheer number of allegations, and then you have these two cases in particular where the — there’s an allegation the pope was directly involved. How much is known about his involvement?

DAVID GIBSON: Well, there is kind of a vacuum at the center of these allegations, in the sense that, in the one case — this is Father Peter Hullermann in Munich in 1980, when the pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich — the pope was — they admit, had given the go-ahead to have him come to the archdiocese for treatment, but then they said he wasn’t responsible or knew nothing about that priest’s immediate reassignment to a parish, where he went on to abuse children from there on.

So, there is — there’s a lot of — there are kind of a lot of missed connections here. As far as the case in the Vatican in the late 1990s, this Father Murphy case from Wisconsin, they’re saying, again, the pope was sent memos and sent reports, but there is nothing — his fingerprints aren’t on any of the memos coming back that then determined that — that Father Murphy shouldn’t be penalized in any way.

So, one is really sure what the pope knew and when he knew it, which is the critical question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the Vatican has responded, in essence, by criticizing the media for these reports. What more is expected? I mean, how much more is — do people without watch this expect that the Vatican is going to need to say, have to say?

DAVID GIBSON: Well, I think they’re really circling the wagons now.

The pope, when he first became pope in 2005, he took a much more aggressive and assertive stance against these pedophile priests and these abusers, not necessarily against the bishops who oversaw them. He’s kind of given them a pass for the most part. But — and — and when the — the cases in Ireland started coming out, starting emerging, he really was — was, I think, proactive, you could say, in terms of trying to address it.

And he recently wrote a letter to the Catholics of Ireland. But the closer these cases have — have come to Joseph Ratzinger personally, the more the Vatican has sort of circled the wagons and become much more defensive in their reaction. And I think you are going to see them really try and stiff-arm the media on this.

And they are really beginning to attack the media in some really harsh terms. That will work for some people in the church who want to defend the pope. But I don’t think it’s really going to play well with the majority of Catholics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much pressure do you sense, David Gibson, that the Vatican is truly under from the outside on this?

DAVID GIBSON: They’re under a lot of pressure, but I think they want to gut it out. The pope is not going to resign. A lot of people are wondering about that. And that’s just not going to happen, unless something really seismic occurs. And that would be a real crisis for the church, obviously.

But I think they just want to gut it out. And, really, the Vatican is a much more insular place. You know, they are not watching — they are not reading the Internet and the blogs every day. And they’re not watching TV, the way — the way we do. And they just — they wouldn’t see — they don’t want to see the pope capitulating to what they consider a media campaign, a campaign by secularists to tarnish the church, to tarnish the figure of the pope himself.

So, you know, I really think they want to try and ride this out. Will they or won’t they? I mean, so much of this seems to kind of replicate the same dynamic that we saw in 2002 with those investigative reports by The Boston Globe that started in Boston, and then, again, spread with reverberations throughout the entire country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is it known how much more the Vatican may have, have access to, in the way of documentation, to support their side of this thing?

DAVID GIBSON: No, it’s not really known. And they need to get this up and out.

Even, I think, their allies are telling them, you have to get all the information out. You can’t have one of these kind of drip-drip-drip type of stories that comes — a little bit more coming out every day, because that really erodes the credibility of the pope, which is really his main platform.

Popes for decades have said: I can no longer command. I have to convince.

And the Vatican has to get all of the information out there. The problem is, if there’s damaging information out there in Munich or in the files of the Vatican under the — in the office where Cardinal Ratzinger was head for so many years, then, of course, that’s going to further undermine the pope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We are going to leave it there for now.

David Gibson, thanks very much.

DAVID GIBSON: Thank you.