April 9, 2010

What the New York Times does not translate

I have already said what I think about the whole thing: nothing can ever excuse the sexual abuse of a minor, as much as nothing can justify covering these abuses up, but claims against Pope Benedict’s handling of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, in particular those according to which he declined to defrock a Milwaukee priest who molested deaf students, are groundless and brought in bad faith. Therefore, since the above mentioned claims have inspired some interesting reactions in the press, more than to repeat myself, I want to suggest some good readings on the subject.

The first is an article, issued a couple of days ago by the influential Italian political newspaper Il Foglio, in which the New York Times is criticized for relying on a computer-generated translation from Italian to English of important responses from the Vatican to the Milwakee sex abuse case. The failure to translate led the NYT to argue that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was protecting the sexually abusive priest.“Behind the accusations,” says Il Foglio’s senior writer Paolo Rodari, “there is a gross translation mistake.” Quite discouraging, to say the least. Read generous excerpts here.

The second is an April 2 piece by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. It’s an insightful and thoughtful look into what the whole thing is all about, a painful acknowledgement of the Catholic Church’s Catastrophe, but also a vigorous defence of the Pope. It’s worth reading and meditating on. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Some blame the scandals on Pope Benedict XVI. But Joseph Ratzinger is the man who, weeks before his accession to the papacy five years ago, spoke blisteringly on Good Friday of the "filth" in the church. Days later on the streets of Rome, the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported, Cardinal Ratzinger bumped into a curial monsignor who chided him for his sharp words. The cardinal replied, "You weren't born yesterday, you understand what I'm talking about, you know what it means. We priests. We priests!" The most reliable commentary on Pope Benedict's role in the scandals came from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, who argues that once Benedict came to fully understand the scope of the crisis, in 2003, he made the church's first real progress toward coming to grips with it.
There are three great groups of victims in this story. The first and most obvious, the children who were abused, who trusted, were preyed upon and bear the burden through life. The second group is the good priests and good nuns, the great leaders of the church in the day to day, who save the poor, teach the immigrant, and, literally, save lives. They have been stigmatized when they deserve to be lionized. And the third group is the Catholics in the pews—the heroic Catholics of America and now Europe, the hardy souls who in spite of what has been done to their church are still there, still making parish life possible, who hold high the flag, their faith unshaken. No one thanks those Catholics, sees their heroism, respects their patience and fidelity. The world thinks they're stupid. They are not stupid, and with their prayers they keep the world going, and the old church too.

The third is an April 6 WSJ piece by Bill McGurn. He argues that claims that then-Cardinal Ratzinger declined to defrock the Milwaukee priest rely upon documents supplied by a leading lawyer in lawsuits against the Catholic Church. He charges that Laurie Goodstein, the author of the two New York Times articles, did not sufficiently disclose this connection and advises more “journalistic skepticism” about the narrative of an attorney who stands to make millions. In fact, Jeff Anderson, the attorney in question, has charged that Pope Benedict is the head of an “international conspiracy” to cover up crimes and evade the law. Read generous excerpts here.


  1. Great post & three must-read articles!

  2. Though I am a non-believer, I completely agree with you and with the 3 articles you mentioned.

  3. If it's true that the Vatican has done everything possible to correct this apparent tendency of abuse, then in principle there should no longer be any such cases.

    Recently and without looking for it I came across an article in The Times of India.

    This particular case doesn't sound as though it has been invented. However even if we convince ourselves that the majority of cases are part of an international defamation campaign, wouldn't this already be reason enough for the Vatican to react in order to redeem and defend its reputation in the eyes of the world, especially if, as one maintains, most these accusations are groundless?

    Regarding the argument of a bad translation. This is perfectly feasible, but to quote : “And it is here, in the Italian version, that many important things are said.” “It is explained that either Fr. Murphy gives ‘clear signs of repentance’ or the canonical process will go to the end, including his dismissal from the clerical state.”

    Surely such criminal behaviour cannot simply be redeemed by repentance. If so the Vatican would be taking law into its own hands. What are 'clear signs of repentance'? That the abuser will try to control himself in future, and trust that the traumatised abused can reconcile with it all?

    There has to be a limit to tolerance, otherwise there will never be any remedy.

    This in itself could be regarded as a cover up.
    Fr. Murphy should be dismissed from the clerical state immediately. Clearly he is not fit to continue to exercise his vocation.

  4. @Mirino:
    ”This particular case doesn't sound as though it has been invented. However even if we convince ourselves that the majority of cases are part of an international defamation campaign,”
    Nobody (here) has ever assumed or thought (nor want to convince himself) that the majority of cases are part of an international defamation campaign.

    ”wouldn't this already be reason enough for the Vatican to react in order to redeem and defend its reputation in the eyes of the world, especially if, as one maintains, most these accusations are groundless? ”

    I’m not sure to have understood what you mean (my fault!). However, the Vatican did react (in many ways and many times). But, generally speaking, who carries the burden of proof? Does the defendant have to prove that he is not guilty or does the prosecutor have to prove that the defendant is guilty? This is a landmark of juridic civilization of truly universal value…
    As for the argument of a bad translation, I’m afraid I didn’t understand your point.

  5. @Rob Thanks for replying to this. As you may know, in spite of maternal Scottish origins, I'm not a Catholic, but I have great respect for all sincere believers of all religions. I'm also aware of the immense responsibility of the Vatican and I care very much about its reputation, but I'm not convinced that enough is being done at the present time to defend it.

    To try to answer your points from the last to the first. The 'bad translation' refers to the passage that was apparently either badly translated if not quasi omitted. Thus, as I understood it, from the Italian version, this, for example, should have been one of the translated results in English : " it is explained that either Fr. Murphy gives 'clear signs of repentance' or the canonical process will go to the end, including his dismissal from the clerical state".

    In other words if Fr. Murphy convinces the Vatican that he is sorry for what he has done, 'all will be forgiven'. This seems to me to be assuming the power of national if not international law. If Fr. Murphy is accused by legal authorities, then surely he should be obliged to face legal consequences without the protection of the Vatican. In principle one would have thought that the Vatican should insist that this be the case.

    For the second point I'm sure that the Vatican has reacted, but as already suggested, had the reactions been effective it stands to reason that there would be far less such cases of criminal abuse committed by priests.

    Regarding the legal question, obviously in a court of law the defendant has the opportunity to be adequately defended and the prosecutor has the opportunity to try to prove the defendant's guilt. Naturally in these cases the victims' testimonies would be essential.

    Finally re. the first point, if it's understood that the majority of these cases are authentic and not fabricated efforts to discredit the Vatican, would it not be time that the Vatican exercise it's authority in such a way that justice prevails?

    (Sadly the polemic continues as we hear today that Joseph Ratzinger was against defrocking an American Priest found guilty of pedophilia in 1985).

  6. In America, the sexual abuse disaster was well-known years ago; and the Church in the States has already paid (often quite literally) a heavy price for it. It is now "new" in Europe, which means European Catholics are undergoing the same "wake-up" American Catholics endured in the 1990s and early 2000s.

    Ironically, if one looks closely at the positionings of the condemnations of the church, church officials are being lambasted in large part for having chosen -- stupidly, we know, in retrospect -- to rely far too heavily on recourse to "new-fangled" therapies and counseling for sexual abusers.

    Funny, but one would think "liberals" would have applauded that initial approach? Indeed, suppose church officials had been instead lightning quick to summon police and defrock priests? Since most youth abused were boys it is actually also easy to believe the church would have been blasted from many media quarters for being way too quick to jump to conclusions, for tossing aside the presumption of innocence until "proven guilty", and above all engaging in an obviously vicious anti-gay "witch hunt" among Catholic clergy.

    One can only imagine the Maureen Dowd column that would have emanated from the situation that saw the church having relentlessly pursued abusers and most proved (as we now know to be the case) to be men who abused young boys. Which is why Rome really can't win. A good part of the problem it now faces is, for many out there, the Roman Catholic church itself is despised no matter what it does.

    One case of abuse is one too many of course, but -- to allude to a point made by an earlier commenter -- evidently there can never be even one case or the Catholic church is decreed to be not doing all it can. One hardly knows where to begin when faced with such "logic". For would such also apply to, for example, government in dealing with drink driving if there were even "one" drunk on the road who had slipped through the net?

    Case in point is that priest now in India cited by that same commenter. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Priest-accused-of-sexually-abusing-14-yr-old-in-US-still-working-in-India/articleshow/5763381.cms

    Read the article carefully. Mid-page we are told "Officials at India's Foreign Ministry were not immediately available to discuss whether the U.S. asked for Jeyapaul's extradition. The two countries do have an agreement."

    We keep hearing that priests are rightfully not above the law, but neither do they have fewer rights than the rest of us. The local bishop in India states that owing to the Minnesota allegation he has removed the priest from duties that may involve children. Regardless, until the extradition comes through India is under no duty to arrest the priest unless he commits a crime there. Or maybe he should just be defrocked summarily and taken out into a town square and stoned without trial?

    At the root of the hatred directed at it, is that the Catholic church is just not considered "progressive" enough by most major media outlets in our day and age in which "everything" goes. Well, actually, as we are learning, perhaps not precisely "everything" any longer. Because we all seem finally to have discovered the singular issue on which there is now to consist (again to borrow the words of that earlier commenter) a universally accepted absolute moral "limit to tolerance".

    How positively refreshing to learn one does exist. Now, next up for media and those determined to protect children at all costs: how about abortion as "abuse"? Uh, hold on, um, let's not be too hasty...

  7. @ Robert
    I agree with most of what you have written. But as you also refer to my comment, I wouldn't qualify for being anti-Vatican. On the contrary, I'm also commenting because I care.
    Nor do I think that the Vatican is wrong- in principle- to condemn abortion (unless there are serious health reasons to justify it) nor wrong not to give its consent to gay marriages, nor wrong to give priority to the moral question rather than give its benediction to the illusion of 'happy, safe sex thanks to condoms'.

    But the issue of abuse committed by priests has reached a level where surely more should be done to reassure the world that the Vatican has or will have the situation under a far more effective control.

    It also seems to me to be more provocative than constructive to invite victims of such abuse rather than reassure them that the Vatican will do all in its power to make sure that there won't be any more victims of priest abuse in the future.

    There seems to be a disparity of sentiment between bringing pedophile priests to justice (whose victims would also require this) and bringing a certain film producer to justice (whose victim would prefer that charges be dropped).
    Although there are obviously no justifications for either cases of abuse, wouldn't the former committed by those who pretend to represent the Church and its virtue, whose behaviour should thus be exemplary, be considered more seriously abusive than that of the latter?

  8. @Mirino:
    ...glad to know that you are not anti-Vatican—I don’t dare to imagine what you would say if you were so… (just kidding!)

  9. Robert, thank you so much for posting such an insightful & thoughtful comment, which proves, once again, that reality is not as black and white as we would like. This is exactly the kind of approach we need.

  10. @Rob
    Pedofile priests could be qualified as anti-Vatican. They do far more harm than any of us, and even more to their victims, of course, than to the Church.

  11. @Mirino:
    ...couldn't agree more...