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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.