What Noonan gets wrong and right about Catholic sex abuse

Peggy Noonan’s recent WSJ column on the recent revelations of the recent crisis in the Catholic Church is deeply, deeply flawed. She discusses it primarily as a problem of priests, saying not a word about the role of bishops in covering up the abuse or willfully ignoring it. She all but acknowledges any effort made within the church to combat the crisis was made because they got caught:

Without this pressure—without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts—the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.

I very much doubt this was a new policy for the 20th century. The earliest reports of abuse of children within the church dates back to the third century. As early as the 1980s, bishops in Germany had a coded, euphamistic language to discuss rape by priests.

Even while acknowledging his inaction on squashing abuse, she absolves Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II, who she calls “the Great”) for no other reason than his lack of imagination:

John Paul the Great, about whom I wrote an admiring book which recounts some of the scandals—I spent a grim 2003 going through the depositions of Massachusetts clergy—one fact seems to me pre-eminent. For Pope John Paul II, the scandals would have been unimaginable—literally not imaginable. He had come of age in an era and place (Poland in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s) of heroic priests. They were great men; they suffered. He had seen how the Nazis and later the communists had attempted to undermine the church and tear people away from it, sometimes through slander. They did this because the great force arrayed against them was the Catholic Church. John Paul, his mind, psyche and soul having been forged in that world, might well have seen the church’s recent accusers as spreaders of slander. Because priests don’t act like that, it’s not imaginable. And he’d seen it before, only now it wasn’t Nazism or communism attempting to kill the church with lies, but modernity and its soulless media. Only they weren’t lies.

Because Wojtyła the romantic failed to recognize the humanity of his institution’s constituant members. This explains his inaction, but does not excuse him. 

Then, Noonan actually praises Ratzinger for initiating “the first real progress towards coming to grips with the abuse.” She cites one speech he made :

[W]eeks 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!”

 Noonan brushes off the suggestion of “some” who blame the “scandal” on Ratzinger, despite the fact that the issue is only in the news again because it has come to light that Ratzinger failed to take sufficient action against at least five pedophiles under his jurisdiction–Peter Hullerman, Marcel Maciel, Lawrence Murphy, Michael Teta, and Robert C. Trupia

 It’s another astounding example of Noonan’s ability to simply refuse to acknowledge information damaging to her favored institutions while insiting others do the same, like when she said we should not investigate the United State’s Bush-era torture policy because “some of life has to be mysterious.”

However, Noonan does make one good point, viz. that even if there is a bias against the Catholic church in the reporters breaking the story of the institution’s conspiracy against its own children, it is “irrelevant”:

The mainstream media almost had to be dragged to it. It was there waiting to be told at least by the 1990s, but broadcast news shows and big newspapers weren’t keen to go after it. It would take months or years to report and consume huge amounts of labor, time and money—endless digging through court records, locating victims and victimizers, getting people who don’t want to talk to talk. And after all that, the payoff could be predicted: You’d get slammed by the church as biased, criticized by sincerely disbelieving churchgoers, and maybe get a boycott from a few million Catholics. No one wanted that.An irony: Non-Catholic members of the media were, in my observation, the least likely to want to go after the story, because they didn’t want to look like they were Catholic-bashing. An irony within the irony: Some journalists didn’t think to go after the story because they really didn’t much like the Catholic Church. Because of this bias, they didn’t see the story as a story. They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn’t register with them that it was a scandal. They didn’t know it was news.

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