The HBO documentary on the child-rape epidemic in the Catholic Church Mea Maxima Culpa should be required watching — particularly for practicing Catholics. The documentary leaves no doubt that the outgoing Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, (Benedict XVI) knew about and helped cover up horrific crimes against children. While the Catholic world mourns his loss, literally thousands of children whose abusers Ratzinger protected from the law may not feel quite so sad.
Mea Maxima Culpa tells the story of that abuse through the voices of four deaf victims from St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee in the 1970s. The boys were severely abused by Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest whose crimes should have landed him in prison for a lifetime, and were ignored by the church that sought only to protect Murphy and itself. Murphy was allowed to continue working with children for years after his activities were uncovered, and never faced justice in court despite confessing to the abuse of more than 200 boys.
The documentary delves into the church’s history of extreme secrecy, exposing the terrible truth that the Catholic Church basically enabled and covered up systematic child rape that reached all corners of its vast empire. The church set up pseudo-psychiatric clinics to deal with the problem in 1947, led by Father Gerald Fitzgerald who began to realize that his efforts were not yielding meaningful results. He wrote regularly to the Vatican urging it to throw out priests abusing children saying the problem was essentially incurable. His pleas were ignored and abusers were simply recycled back into the system and given roles that included contact with children. This refusal to deal with what Fitzgerald described as a ‘rampant’ problem within the church manifested itself in abuse case after abuse case that left thousands of children destroyed by sexual predators.
Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) knew about the abuse at every level within the church, and despite instituting reforms, still protected some of the most heinous abusers from facing justice. Writes Andrew Sullivan in a review of the documentary:
John Paul II emphatically cannot be somehow removed from this picture. He personally protected one of the worst offenders, Marcial Maciel, who was a serial rapist, drug trafficker, bigamist and rapist of his own son. In fact, John Paul II elevated Maciel to the highest honors of the church – backed by the theocon wing of the American church, from Richard John Neuhaus to Bill Bennett and Mary Ann Glendon.
And it continued under Ratzinger — a man who objectively did more than any other Pope to investigate and stamp out the abuse. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote of Ratzinger back in 2010:
After his promotion to cardinal, he [Ratzinger] was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church’s own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone … is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.” (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble
That means Ratzinger knew of literally every single case of child rape in the Catholic Church. But rather than hand over the documents to the police, Ratzinger decided the church knew best. Under Ratzinger, the Vatican did adopt a hard line against abusers, but maintained that it was not required to report “allegations” and was only to follow civil law when it came to the actual “reporting” of crimes. Ratzinger had previously protected known molesters from the law, allowing Peter Hullermann to move to Munich for therapy in 1980 after it was revealed he had molested boys in the Diocese of Essen. Hullermann was allowed to return to full pastoral duties after his “therapy” and six years later, he was convicted of sexually abusing children in the Bavarian town of Grafing.
It is fitting that the documentary came out days before Ratzinger shockingly announced his resignation on “health grounds.” The film shows the enormous bravery of the deaf men who sought to take on the Vatican, and the cowardice of the men inside the institution who knew about the crimes but did nothing to stop them. The victims fought to regain the self-esteem Father Murphy and the church took from them as small boys, and they fought to prevent the abuse from continuing. Ratzinger did more than most to combat sex crimes against children within the church, but ultimately his priority was the preservation of the church rather than the protection of children and the prosecution of known criminals.
The Catholic Church has done much good and much evil in its storied history. Its commitment to helping the poor with spirituality and human dignity is to be admired, while its role in war, the suppression of women and abuse of children is to be despised. Like any institution, it is both good and bad, but the scandal that involves complicity in the rape and torture of children requires a reevaluation of its place in modern society.
The Vatican is a law unto itself – an untouchable power center that pulls in unimaginable wealth from its ardent followers and behaves as it pleases. Its statehood – a gift from dictator Mussolini in return for its recognition of the fascist state – has been seriously abused and it is high time its authority was dismantled and its members were subjected to the same law Europeans are. The Vatican has detailed records of the crimes its priests have committed against children and it should be forced to hand them over. Perhaps Ratzinger sees the writing on the wall and is getting out before the tide of public opinion and unstoppable flow of information on the abuse becomes unmanageable. Bear in mind, Ratzinger is the first Pope in 600 years to resign, making it entirely possible that there are seismic changes happening within the institution that are beyond his control. Ultimately, the concern parents have for the welfare of their children overrides the dictates of men parading as religious leaders who are more concerned with their own careers than anything else.
The archaic priesthood system that requires abstinence is not only a protector of abusers, it is a progenitor of them. To deny human sexuality is to repress it and turn it into something dangerous. Men, who would otherwise be homosexual, are trained to ignore their urges from an early age. They enter the priesthood as a way of escaping societal pressure, and having not developed sexual maturity, prey on children who can then become abusers themselves. It is a vicious cycle, making the Catholic Church a ticking time bomb of sexual frustration and perversity. So grave is the institutional culture of repression that it may have led even the pope to jump ship before it explodes and brings the whole decrepit system down.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.