Why Time Magazine misses the point

It would probably be too much to ask that Time magazine run a cover story on the bold statements and concrete actions that Benedict XVI has taken to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

No self-respecting journalistic enterprise wants to be separated from the pack when it comes to covering a controversial news story, which means it must always follow the herd, even when the evidence points elsewhere.

But the Time magazine June 7 cover story is a particularly frustrating example of a media enterprise playing to prejudices with half-truths even to the point of severely misrepresenting the story.

"Why Being Pope Means Never having To Say You're Sorry: The Sex Abuse Scandal and the Limits of Atonement" is the provocative headline splashed across the most recent Time cover, which also features an image of the back of Benedict XVI's mitered head.

Lest we have any doubts where this is heading, the lead sentence of the story manages to drag in the Inquisition: "How do you atone for something terrible, like the Inquisition?"

The gist of the story is that as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he wasn't so up to apologizing for the Inquisition, and he isn't really doing enough to apologize for the clergy sexual abuse crisis, either. Time magazine wants the pope to offer a personal mea culpa, particularly for his handling of a case in Germany when he was archbishop of Munich, and more generally for the fact that he "was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the Church in the past half-century."

The target

The story, written by Jeff Israely (reporting from Rome) and Howard Chua-Eoan, while appearing to be about the sexual abuse crisis, is really a subtly written assault on the papacy itself, making the following case:

1. For the past two centuries, the Vatican has centralized power and authority over the Church, including the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

2. This centralization is how it has managed to control its docile flock even as it has lost temporal power.

3. At stake in the sexual abuse crisis is the prestige and power of the papacy and the Church's own authority.

4. There needs to be some sort of acceptance of personal guilt on the part of Pope Benedict for his actions, despite all he has done to address the crisis.

5. Such an admission of guilt and apology would call into question, however, the "theological impregnability of the papacy" and hasten other changes in the Church that will diminish its size and authority.

The provocative headline of the article -- "Why Being Pope Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry" -- makes more sense in this narrative because it yokes the claim of infallibility to the current crisis, making the papacy the center of the abuse story.

The fact that the Pope has apologized repeatedly thus becomes irrelevant for Time magazine -- despite the obvious contradiction of the headline -- because the apologies are just a public relations strategy to head off a greater challenge.

In laying out this political analysis of the last 200 years of Church history, the article also serves to bolster the case of those lawyers seeking damages from the Vatican for sexual abuse cases that occurred in the United States. Since the Vatican was so centralized and domineering, the question of its liability for the handling of individual local cases becomes more plausible.


Thus, after recounting the many positive steps the pope has taken, Time still concludes that he is hedging: "He assigned wrongdoing not to the Church but to its servants." This, the magazine suggests, is to protect the Church from legal liability. "The consequences of sin are subject to divine salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public humiliation and the loss of property."

Time quotes an Irish theologian: "This very centralized Church [tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case since the end of the 19th century." Here it ties everything back to the First Vatican Council and its statement on papal infallibility. In keeping with the heavy editorializing of the entire story, it sums up Vatican I as a "stage-managed" council that used a "suspect majority of bishops" to approve infallibility, thus allowing the Roman Curia to become "ever more centralized and domineering."

While the article dismisses "a purportedly impromptu crowd of 150,000 people" who showed up to cheer the Pope one Sunday (although no one claims it was impromptu), it lauds plans for a "Reformation Day" in October being organized by victims of clergy sexual abuse to "pressure the Vatican to act" and to "take back" the Church.

The story gets so many details wrong, that defenders of Benedict XVI in some ways don't know where to start.

Papal authority

Infallibility has nothing to do with the story of sexual abuse. The centralization of authority is more stereotype than truth, as witnessed by the diversity of Catholic voices, the independent actions of many bishops, the rise of the national bishops' conferences and on and on. If anything, what is frustrating to many Catholics and puzzling to non-Catholics who hold a simplistic view of papal authority is that the Pope cannot just rule by arbitrary decree. (It is ironic that this same misunderstanding permeates the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and the struggle with Nazism.)

The real story is this: Benedict XVI is aware of the scale and the scope of the crisis worldwide. He has taken decisive actions (such as the removal of the founder of the Legion of Christ). He has intervened strongly in Ireland, with a remarkably honest and plain-spoken letter to the Irish Catholics, a visitation of top prelates to study the root causes of the crisis and how it was handled, the acceptance of several resignations by bishops, and a high-level meeting with Irish prelates at the Vatican. He has quite clearly led the way in encouraging local bishops' conferences to address their scandals head on, and he has laid out the language for understanding the crisis: Endorsing the search for truth, calling for penance, not blaming the media or enemies outside the Church, but pointing to the enemies within.

Mistakes have been made. Grievous mistakes. Mistakes were made by bishops, by priests, by psychiatrists and police and judges and yes, even by well-intentioned and grief-stricken relatives. The cost of these mistakes is very high, and the Church will have to pay these costs. But efforts to make Benedict XVI part of the problem rather than part of the solution would be an even bigger mistake, for it is he who is providing real leadership on this issue.

It is Benedict XVI who is refusing to circle the wagons and understands the spiritual as well as the canonical and civil issues at stake. It is Benedict XVI who is championing the necessary reform and renewal that the scandals demand.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, and co-author of the newly released "Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal" (2010, Our Sunday Visitor).

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