On Sunday I appeared on The Big Questions on BBC1 to discuss whether the Pope should "resign". It quickly descended into a heckling circus where calmly reasoned argument fell victim to unfocused outrage. Afterwards, two representatives of the Protest the Pope Coalition told me menacingly I had "no right" to defend Benedict XVI's record on abuse.
But shouting down the truth doesn't make it go away. I don't defend the pPpe because I think it is the duty of a good Catholic; I defend him because he is completely innocent of the charges made against him, and because the media has merged with the mob and misreported the facts.
The three recent stories from the US cited by Richard Dawkins and his mob as "proving" that the Pope should be arrested under international law – the horrible cases of Murphy in Wisconsin, Teta and Trupia in Arizona, and now Kiesle in California – have this in common: the abuse took place in the 1970s; the police were informed and acted; the Priest was suspended by his Bishop; requests for dismissal from the clerical state ("defrocking") were sent to Cardinal Ratzinger's department in the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and some time later the Priests were defrocked – except in the case of Murphy, who died during his trial.
Suspension and defrocking are two separate actions. The first can be done by a Bishop, with immediate effect; the second is a lengthy process that involves Rome. Suspension – meaning a Priest is no longer able to function as a Priest – say Mass, hear Confession, act as chaplain etc – is the key action that a Bishop has to take against an abusive Priest to prevent him having contact with minors. If, in any of these "smoking gun" cases, the Bishop failed to suspend an abusive Priest immediately, he did wrong. But such failure would have had nothing to do with Cardinal Ratzinger, whose only involvement was when a request for defrocking landed on his desk.
The time Rome took over each defrocking says nothing whatsoever about cover-up or collusion. It says only that defrocking was then a complex and elaborate procedure that took too long. However, what prevented the abuse was not the defrocking but the suspension by the Bishop. There is no link between the length of the defrocking process and the Priest's opportunity to abuse. In fact, in the case of Kiesle, most of the abuse for which he was convicted took place after he was defrocked, when his Bishop had no more control over him.
But wasn't Ratzinger in charge while all this was going on? Didn't it happen on his watch? No. From 1981 to 2001 he was in charge of a department that dealt with defrocking, but not with suspensions and penalties for paedophile Priests, which were the responsibility of local Bishops. A number of Bishops failed to suspend the abusive Priests, some of whom continued to abuse. That is the scandal. It has been exposed and dealt with, and a number of Bishops have, as a result, resigned. More important, guidelines are now in place to prevent it ever happening again.
Not only was Cardinal Ratzinger not complicit in these failures, he was the Vatican official who most clearly saw what was needed to tackle the problem. Then, in 2001, Pope John Paul asked him to review the local churches' handling of clerical abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger asked Bishops around the world to forward to him all cases where credible allegations had been made against Priests.
He did this not to "cover up" the crimes – which had been reported to the local police – but to ensure that the Priests were more speedily dealt with. He accomplished this by amending the procedure for defrocking to allow for a fast-track procedure that did not involve trials.
Some try to make out that Cardinal Ratzinger's 2001 letter orders a cover-up by insisting that parties observe secrecy under pain of excommunication. What it actually says is that confidentiality should be observed during Church trials, to allow the victims to give evidence freely and to protect the accused until found guilty. There is nothing in that letter preventing victims reporting the case to the police, and the assumption is that they should.
Pope Benedict is not responsible for cover-up, collusion, turning a blind eye, institutional idolatry or any of the other accusations that, with greater or lesser vehemence, have been hurled at the Catholic Church during recent weeks. On the contrary, he is the one in the Vatican who has done most to rid the Church of this scourge. He is the one who has acted most consistently and energetically to improve the Church's handling of these cases.