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Amid Scandal, Examining the Vatican’s Response

April 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Vatican officials have condemned criticism of Pope Benedict in connection with the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Church. Margaret Warner talks to two church experts in the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: We take a closer look now at how the pope and the Vatican are responding to the recent revelations and allegations. It comes from the Very Reverend David O’Connell, president of Catholic University, and Scott Appleby, the author of several books about the church and Catholicism. He’s a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

And welcome to you both.

Professor Appleby, beginning with you, how effectively, or ineffectively, do you think the pope and the Vatican have dealt with this latest chapter in the clergy sex abuse scandal?

SCOTT APPLEBY, professor of history, University of Notre Dame: I think it’s generally been an ineffective response, because the church is not always speaking with a consistent voice.

The pope has been very good overall during his pontificate on this crisis, on the sexual abuse crisis. And he has spoken with a pretty consistent message. But, in the last couple of weeks, as the European scandal has spread, a number of voices within the church have been giving mixed messages, including the Good Friday message that compared the suffering of the Jews to the recent problems of the church, and a few other comments on the part of members of the hierarchy that haven’t really added to a consistent message of remorse, repentance, regret, and — and a resolve to make the church more accountable for these sins and crimes.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that what you’re hearing, Father O’Connell, a lack of remorse, repentance, and also accountability?

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL, president, Catholic University of America: Yes, I think we have to realize that there’s going to be an effort to be supportive of the pope. And that’s a very important fact here.

And, as Dr. Appleby noted, this particular pope has been particularly rigorous and particularly aggressive in addressing the sexual abuse crisis throughout his pontificate, even before his pontificate began. His recent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, I think, mapped out a very clear picture of — of what he believes and how he feels in response to this terrible, terrible situation.

MARGARET WARNER: And, yet, Professor Appleby, the pope’s letter to the Irish Catholics, or the Catholics of Ireland, while praised for the tone of repentance and remorse, and they’re going to have an investigation there, there was no accountability for, say, bishops who had allowed priests to be transferred, for example, was there?

SCOTT APPLEBY: No. And I believe that’s the — the final part of the puzzle, that — that the church has to acknowledge that the bishops have a very important role, obviously, overall in governing the church.

And when there are mistakes that are made — and, in this case, there were very serious mistakes made of judgment, and really of lack of awareness and ignorance on the part of — on several bishops, in terms of the — the depth of this problem, that the bishops, as well as the priests and other members of the church have to be held accountable.

There has to be some way that the pope acknowledges the faults of the hierarchy and calls the hierarchy itself to repentance.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Father O’Connell, of course, then, we have the allegations that the pope himself, while he was archbishop and again as a cardinal, was part of this hierarchy that tended, in the views of victims, anyway, to be more protective of the priests accused than they were — than it was of the victims.

To what degree — I mean, that is certainly a new element here, is it not, compared to, say, when the U.S. scandals broke. And — and how is that playing into the dynamics of what’s going on and what — what we’re hearing from the Vatican?

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL: I mean, this is all a very, very complicated matter.

I would like to say that, in the letter to the Catholics of Ireland, the pope does speak, in probably the strongest language I have seen, about the failures of the bishops as leaders of the church, as shepherds of the church, to address the problem in an appropriate and an effective way. So, I think that needs to be said.

As far as the pope’s own involvement as an archbishop, as a cardinal in Germany — I think that’s what you’re referring to.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s the Germany case and then the one involving the priest in Milwaukee.

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL: We have remember, I think, in all fairness, that we tend to judge situations that happened 20, 30, 40 years ago by our knowledge of today and our standards of today. And I don’t know that that’s always altogether fair.

The pope acted as cardinal archbishop of Munich-Freising in a way that was normal for the hierarchy of his day. We look at it with hindsight and say, well, you know, he should have done this and he should have done that.

You know, you have to understand, when — when — when someone is in charge of a very large diocese, as Archbishop Ratzinger was, Cardinal Ratzinger was, at that time, it’s very natural and normal that they would hand off certain matters to personnel directors or vicars or other people who works in the chancery operation. And that’s what happened here.

We don’t know — that’s the fact — what Cardinal Ratzinger did or didn’t know. And, so, we have to be careful in rushing to judgment and asking for the head of Cardinal Ratzinger on a silver platter.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Professor Appleby, the — some at least in the Vatican have responded to the allegations about the pope, about then Cardinal Ratzinger, by attacking the media, and saying the media has been unfair. I mean, do you think that’s an appropriate response? What’s your take on that?

SCOTT APPLEBY: Well, I — certainly, the media is not innocent in the way that the scandal has been covered, because many of the stories are repetitive. And I believe there is an element of bias in the media.

On the other hand, the media didn’t create this crisis or this scandal. And most of the reporting by The New York Times and other news institutions, including the “NewsHour,” is balanced, fair, accurate and reports what is known, and does so quite well.

The church has set the table for the media in this case. And one of the problems that the church needs to address, I think, is precisely its own communications practices, because the church has been slow to respond. I think it’s overall been inconsistent in its message. And it’s on the defensive.

Every statement made by every bishop and the pope should begin with apology, remorse, and move on to engage the substance of the question. And the church needs to speak with one voice. Whatever the media does or doesn’t do really isn’t the question. The church is the representative of Christ on Earth. It has to be the voice of compassion, when necessary, repentance, healing.

And it shouldn’t be wasting its time distracting itself by worrying about the media. It has to take care of its own business.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re nodding your head.

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL: Yes. You know, Mark Twain said it well. You don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

You know, I don’t see what we have to gain by attacking the media. And, in a sense, if it were not for some media reports, perhaps this issue might no has been addressed — might not have been addressed as aggressively as it has. But, as Dr. Appleby indicates, there is some bias. And that’s very clear as you listen to the reporting.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you before we finish, because you were in Rome last week and saw the pope, what is your sense of how he’s responding to this?

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL: Well, my meeting with the pope was for a different purpose.

And — but he looked tired to me. He looked like he’s aged significantly since the last time I saw him, when he visited Catholic University in 2008. And some of his collaborators said to me that they thought the pope was feeling the burden of this very deeply and very personally.

MARGARET WARNER: Of the scandal?

VERY REV. DAVID O’CONNELL: Of the scandal and the news of it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, briefly from you, Professor Appleby, what do you think the pope should do now?

SCOTT APPLEBY: I think the pope needs to continue in the vein of comments he’s made throughout his pontificate, acknowledging remorse for the scandal, again, as he did in the letter to the Irish bishops, calling on the hierarchy to also acknowledge their role, and focusing on the victims, on their suffering.

MARGARET WARNER: And do — do you think, though, he has to address the allegations or the questions that have been raised about himself?

SCOTT APPLEBY: Actually, I think that that part of the reporting has been exaggerated.

We don’t know exactly what Cardinal Ratzinger, the archbishop, knew at the time. Compared to the behavior of some of the other bishops in this now European and American scandal, the pope’s behavior is — is not yet at a level or hasn’t reported to be at a level where I think he has to address his own involvement at this point.

If other disclosures come forward, and the situation changes, then that might change. I don’t think we’re there yet.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, we have to leave it there.

There are those who disagree with you, Professor Appleby, but thank you both very much for your views.