Hype, hyperbole and Christopher Hitchens
In a piece written in his famously understated style, Christopher Hitchens presents a fair and balanced analysis of the Catholic Church abuse story.
Just kidding. The old soak didn't get where he is without playing to the gallery.
In his latest denunciation of the Whore of Babylon ("The Roman Catholic Church is headed by a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime") da Hitch refers to Ratzinger's supposed efforts to obstruct justice:
"Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated 'in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.' Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble."
He's referring here to the document, Crimen sollicitationis, a letter issued by the Holy Office and signed by Cardinal Ottaviani, updated in 2001 and reissued by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, which laid down procedures to be followed in cases where priests had used the confessional to make advances on penitents. This he depicts as a key link in the chain of the Church's criminal conspiracy to cover up sex-abuse cases.
In so doing he ignores the fact that the document goes to extraordinary lengths to see that the faithful denounce priestly sex-abusers, or putting it differently, Hitchens' is telling porkies, perhaps not deliberately - I can well imagine that he finds the boring but necessary business of research an impediment to his literary output. Nonetheless Slate's editorial team (doesn't it employ factcheckers?) deserve a rap on the knuckles for publishing such an outrageous falsehood.
The truth is that Crimen sollicitationis obliges Catholics to denounce priestly sexual advances within a month on pain of excommunication, a penalty which will only be lifted if the individual actually denounces the priest or promises to do so, as the document itself makes abundantly clear:
18. “A member of the faithful who, in violation of the (aforementioned) prescription of Canon 904, knowingly disregards the obligation to denounce within a month the person by whom he or she was solicited, incurs a reserved excommunication latae sententiae, which is not to be lifted until he or she has satisfied the obligation, or has promised seriously to do so” (Can. 2358, § 2)
Either wilfully or lazily, Hitchens also misinterprets Crimen sollicitationis' insistence on secrecy.
In his analysis of Crimen sollicitationis, the doyenne of Vatican correspondents, John Allen patiently explained, "canon lawyers believe there is good reason for secrecy in sex abuse cases. It allows witnesses to speak freely, accused priests to protect their good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward who don’t want publicity. Such secrecy is also not unique to sex abuse. It applies, for example, to the appointment of bishops."
At this point it's useful to quote from Sandro Magister's interview with senior CDF official, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, even though those wedded to gothic horror fantasies about the Catholic Church will probably dismiss it as a pack of lies:
Asked about the document's recommendation of secrecy in proceedings, Scicluna noted:
A poor English translation of that text has led people to think that the Holy See imposed secrecy in order to hide the facts. But this was not so. Secrecy during the investigative phase served to protect the good name of all the people involved; first and foremost, the victims themselves, then the accused priests who have the right – as everyone does – to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The Church does not like showcase justice. Norms on sexual abuse have never been understood as a ban on denouncing the crimes to the civil authorities.
Note that comment about the Church not liking showcase justice? I'm sure Christopher Hitchens likes to think of himself as the kind of highminded citizen who opposes witchhunts and Vyshinsky-style kangaroo courts, too. Not for the first time, however, it's the Church's adherence to the basic principles of justice which shows up many of her critics for the illiberal extremists they actually are.
Read the rest of Magister's illuminating interview with Scicluna here.
Anyway, now that I've ruthlessly kicked away a key plank of Hitch's case, what's left? His gloriously drawling prose-style, is the answer. And that, dear reader, is how he should be read: with the same cool superficiality that he applies to his polemics.