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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.