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February 16th / 17th, 2013

"The Pope Should Stand Trial for His Crimes"

Pope BenedictLast week, Jerry Burnette of Clemmons was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl in 2010. Last year, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing a number of boys over a 15-year period. Unfortunately, these cases are no longer rare, but at least families and victims can take solace in the fact that their abusers are punished. Not so  with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, because the Vatican has systematically covered up their crimes, while world leaders have enabled the cover-up, either actively or passively.

In April 2008, Pope Benedict traveled to Washington, DC to be feted by his buddy, President George W. Bush, on the occasion of the pontiff’s birthday. As more and more cases of abuse were coming to light, Bush praised his friend, calling the papal visit a reminder for Americans to “distinguish between right and wrong.” But if ever there was a man who did NOT know the difference between right and wrong it was Pope Benedict. The week following the DC gathering, I wrote a scathing column about papal hypocrisy, and what was really behind Bush’s ringing endorsement of the pope. Here’s a recap.

Before becoming Pope in April 2005, Benedict was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a former Hitler Youth during World War II who eventually became Pope John Paul’s right-hand man and fixer. In that role, it was Ratz who ordered that all files and reports of priestly sexual abuse be kept in his office and dealt with by him alone. In 2001, Ratz issued a letter in Latin to all bishops ordering that “such crimes as sexual abuse of minors” would be handled in private by the church. He also imposed two orders of silence upon the bishops, and threatened to excommunicate them if they broke silence on the matter of sexual abuse. He further ordered that the church seal all abuse cases for ten years after the minor turned 18, so that the statute of limitations would favor the Vatican during any ensuing legal battles.

As soon as Benedict became pope, a Texas attorney sought to bring the pontiff to trial on behalf of three clients who had been sexually abused by a Houston priest. The pontiff panicked, and feared that he might actually have to stand trial in a Texas courtroom for conspiring to cover up child molestations. So Ratz asked Bush to grant him immunity from liability in the Houston case. That request came in August 2005, but it was actually a quid pro quo that had been set in motion a year earlier. According to journalist Sidney Blumenthal, Bush had pleaded with the Vatican to help him defeat his Catholic opponent John Kerry in the upcoming election. Bush reportedly asked that Ratz have his American bishops ramp up their rhetoric against abortion and gay marriage. Ratz complied, and Bush ended up winning the majority of the Catholic vote which represented about 20 percent of the electorate. And so the Pope’s immunity from prosecution in Texas was nothing but political payback.

No wonder Bush threw Ratz a big birthday bash.

I am reminded of this sordid tale after watching a new documentary by Alex Gibney which premiered last week on HBO. Titled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the film focuses on sexual abuses and cover-ups by the Catholic Church in general, and, specifically, about abuses which took place at a church-run school for the deaf in Milwaukee from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the abuses by Father Lawrence Murphy is that he preyed on deaf boys whose parents did not know sign language, so even if the children had realized what was happening to them, they couldn’t communicate their call for help to their parents. In the late 1950s, one of Murphy’s victims managed to tell a visiting priest (who was skilled in sign language) about the abuses, but after the priest reported Murphy’s crimes to church hierarchy, no action was ever taken. Four of Murphy’s victims recently sought justice for the abuses they endured, but, to no one’s surprise, the Vatican hid behind the statute of limitations, and the case was dropped.

The priests who commit atrocities against young children are almost never punished, and the man who covered up their crimes can’t be tried because he has diplomatic immunity. Mea Maxima Culpa gives us a disturbing insight into sexual abuse, and reminds us that true reform and true justice will never be realized until politicians and prosecutors can break through legal loopholes to hold the pope accountable. It’s a day we can only pray comes soon.

Editor’s note: Longworth filed this column on Saturday. Pope Benedict announced his retirement on Monday.