Did a documentary film force the Pope to resign?

Reviewed: Mea Maxima Culpa.

Why did the Pope resign? Yes, yes, he is old and ill. But what could possibly possess a man so wedded to tradition to break with it so forcefully? We all remember images of John Paul II bending over a microphone, squinting at the faithful and blessing them with all the energy he had. “One does not come down from the cross,” his former secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, is said to have quipped last week. In one sense at least, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger has ensured his legacy. He has instituted a get-out clause that will enable the College of Cardinals to elect the most able among them, responding in a timely fashion to the demands of the job.

The number of Catholics, we are often told, is growing. But this is only true where population growth is swelling the ranks. In Europe and North America, the number of people actively engaging with the Church is in decline. “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” the Pope said in his valedictory speech. But is it secularism that demands a fit and healthy knight of faith, or an issue which Benedict XVI knew a great deal more intimately?

“The resignation seems to me inextricably linked to the sex abuse crisis,” Alex Gibney told the Hollywood Reporter on 12 February, the day Ratzinger announced that he was stepping down. “It’s two days before Ash Wednesday. Because of the way that the conclave works, it means no pope will probably reside over Easter Sunday Mass. You wonder if there is another shoe to drop.” Gibney, the American documentarian responsible for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), has made new film about another seemingly unimpeachable organisation: the Vatican, and its attempts to cover-up, or simply ignore, corruption within its ranks.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is to place the victims' stories front and centre. Too often the sex abuse scandal has revolved around the institution, its hierarchical arrangement and the complicated fallibility of supposedly infallible men. We begin with the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, the priest assigned to the St John’s School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin between 1950 and 1974. Murphy systematically abused hundreds of boys, picking out individuals whose parents could not sign, in order that their pleas would go unheard, cornering them in the confessional and picking them out of their dorms at night. The case is narrated by a group of survivors, now middle aged, who pursued legal action against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) and later, in an ongoing suit, against the Vatican.

This is contrasted with a trail of bishops and archbishops who either ignore, or refuse to accept, the men’s testimonies. In a segment on similar cases in Ireland, former Archbishop of Dublin (now Cardinal Desmond Connell), bats away journalists who ask why he didn’t react sooner to reports of abuse. “I’ve a lot to do,” he says. Gibney takes on the Church as though it were a corporation. Cardinal Ratzinger enters as Prefect of the Confederation for the Doctrine of the Faith (that’s the Inquisition, to you and me) in 1981. During this time he requested that every new sex abuse case came to his desk. In 1997, he asked the Pope to dismiss him from the role, hoping to become an archivist and librarian in the Vatican Library. John Paul refused. Ratzinger has made a number of notable apologies for the sex abuse crisis, but judging by the cases cited in the film, they were too little, too late.

It is not only clergy that have silenced abuse in the Church. As one Irish interviewee recalls: “They were bearers of the sacrament - when the priest walked by we would get down on our knees and bless ourselves.” The parish priest provides closeness with God through the Eucharist, a super-natural institution which is fast-rooted and unlikely to become unstuck any time soon. When priests are attacked, the church authorities are so blinded by the need to protect clerical sanctity, they fail to fully recognise that damage they have done.

Crucially, the film does not engage with the rule of clerical celibacy. Though there are records of priests continuing to marry until the eleventh century (a little Bible study: Matthew 8:14, “And when Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever”), the film quotes a manuscript which suggests a case of abuse in the third century. This is misleading and divorced from any context. It suggests that abuse has been endemic from the origins of the church, which it probably has, but only because paedophilia is a universal problem.

Of course, sexual contact with children is not only a sin, but a punishable crime. When he found out he was dying, Bob Bolger, one of the abused from St John's, set off to track down Murphy, who was then living in peace near Lake Superior. He asked Murphy to turn himself in. The priest refused, and was never defrocked. He died in 1998. A lady named Grace repeatedly questions Bolger, as Murphy sneaks inside: “Are you a Catholic?” Over and over she asks him, “Are you a Catholic?” It was reminiscent of Larry David being asked whether he was a Jew because he was whistling Wagner. "How could you do this to your own?" the argument goes.

Criticism from outside the Church is often assumed to be motivated by anti-Catholicism. David Pierre of the Catholic World Report has called Gibney’s film a “tool to advance a nasty anti-Catholic agenda.” But this is not fair. The film is not perfect, but it does something the Church has repeatedly failed to do: it puts the victims first. One cannot help but wonder whether Ratzinger has seen it. Most likely not, but given his expertise on the subject, perhaps retirement seemed most prudent given the circumstances. Mutatis mutandis.

Pope Benedict XVI makes his exit. Image: HBO.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.