Nicholas Kulish and Katrin Bennhold (The New York Times of 25 March) were quite emphatic in their opening: “The future Pope Benedict XVI,” they asserted “was kept more closely apprised of a sexual abuse case in Germany than previous church statements have suggested, raising fresh questions about his handling of a scandal unfolding under his direct supervision before he rose to the top of the church’s hierarchy.”
The then Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and Freising “was copied on a memo that informed him that a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome paedophilia, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment.”
All quite clear?
Just to make it absolutely crystal clear, they spell it out in black and white: “But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.”
But what is this followed by? Well, equivocation seems an appropriate word: “What part he played in the decision making, and how much interest he showed in the case of the troubled priest, who had molested multiple boys in his previous job, remains unclear.”
Straws are then clutched: “But the personnel chief who handled the matter from the beginning, the Rev. Friedrich Fahr, ‘always remained personally, exceptionally connected’ to Cardinal Ratzinger, the church said.”
“(T)he church said.” Now who exactly would that be? We are not told.
Attribution, though, is not entirely absent for the very next paragraph is based on an interview with a named archdiocesan official. The authors write: “Church officials defend Benedict by saying the memo was routine and was ‘unlikely to have landed on the archbishop’s desk,’ according to the Rev. Lorenz Wolf, judicial vicar at the Munich Archdiocese.”
Got that? It was “unlikely” that the memo landed on Cardinal Ratzinger’s desk. So they have no story. If this were meant to be a piece of fair and unbiased reportage it would be game, set and match to Papa Ratzi. But it was never meant to be that. And so we are next told: “But Father Wolf said he could not rule out that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it.”
Fr Wolf believed it to be “unlikely” but he couldn’t be absolutely one hundred percent certain. In criminal trials the burden of proof is “beyond reasonable doubt” and in civil cases it is the less exacting standard of “balance of probability”. Fr Wolf’s evidence doesn’t come anywhere near to swinging the balance of probability against the Holy Father’s defenders.
Indeed, we are told that “According to Father Wolf, who spoke with Father Gruber this week at the request of The New York Times, Father Gruber, the former vicar general, said that he could not remember a detailed conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger about Father Hullermann…”
In the interests of determining where the balance of probability lies, in the interests of fairness, the authors then point out: “but (that) Father Gruber refused to rule out that ‘the name had come up.’” Note that: he “refused” to rule it out, according to them. But is it not more likely that if we were to see the contemporaneous notes, if there are any, then in English translation what he probably had said was more along the lines of “can’t in all honesty absolutely” rule it out.
But to report it in that way, honestly, would require what is evidenced by its total absence: honesty.