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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser