A Cardinal Hung Out to Dry

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos was to have been celebrating a Tridentine mass in DC this week. No more. This on the heels of the uproar over his 2001 letter congratulating a bishop for not turning a priest over to the police. He has defended the letter, saying he posted it publicly on the Vatican webpage at the time, and saying he had the backing of Pope John Paul II. John Allen gives us some background and some reflection on implications of this for the controversy over Ratzinger’s actions.

… [T]he official Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, had a statement out to reporters almost immediately after stories broke in France.

The letter, Lombardi’s statement said, offers “another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

In effect, that was a polite way of saying that Castrillón was part of the problem against which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had to struggle in streamlining Vatican procedures for dealing with sex abuse cases. …

Throughout the most recent round of media coverage, there’s been a serious mismatch between Pope Benedict’s actual record on sex abuse — as the senior Vatican official who took the crisis most seriously since 2001, and who led the charge for reform — and outsider images of the pope as part of the problem.

While there are many reasons for that, a core factor is that the Vatican had the last ten years to tell the story of “Ratzinger the Reformer” to the world, and they essentially dropped the ball. That failure left a PR vacuum in which a handful of cases from the pope’s past, where his own role was actually marginal, have come to define his profile.

One has to ask, why didn’t the Vatican tell Ratzinger’s story?

At least part of the answer, I suspect, is because to make Ratzinger look good, they’d have to make others look bad — including, of course, Castrillón, as well as other top Vatican officials. Lurking behind that concern is a deeper one, which is that to salvage the reputation of Benedict XVI it might be necessary to tarnish that of Pope John Paul II.

In this case, however, Castrillón has inadvertently licensed the Vatican and church officials around the world to use him as a foil, effectively waiving a cardinal’s traditional immunity from criticism.

From here on out, when spokespersons insist that Pope Benedict fought inside the Vatican for reform, the world will have a much clearer picture of what his opposition looked like. At stake wasn’t just the question of cooperation with the police. Castrillón was part of a block of Vatican officials who thought the sex abuse crisis was fueled by media hysteria, that “zero tolerance” was an over-reaction, and that removing priests from ministry without lengthy and cumbersome canonical trails is a betrayal of the church’s legal tradition.

That’s important to keeping the record straight, because the truth is that the real choice in Rome over the last ten years vis-à-vis the sex abuse crisis was never between Ratzinger and perfection — it was between Ratzinger and Castrillón.