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Pope Benedict student, Father Joseph Fessio, lays out the facts versus media reportage in the Church abuse scandal

Friday, April 2, 2010
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HH: If you heard yesterday’s program, you heard a conversation I had with Father Thomas Brundage, who was the prosecutor of the serial child molester, Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998. Father Brundage set a lot of the record straight, but the media continues to hammer at Pope Benedict. And the Roman Catholic Church today, through a number of cardinals in Rome, counterattacked against the New York Times today for what is becoming increasingly obviously an exercise in anti-Catholic bigotry. I’m joined now by Father Joseph Fessio. He is the founder and editor of Ignatius Press. He is a student of Benedict’s, and a great man of the Church. Hello, Father, welcome back, and a happy Holy Week and Easter to you.

JF: Hugh, good to be here, and I wish all your listeners a happy Holy Week, too.

HH: Now Father, what do you make of what is going on here? What is your 30,000 foot assessment of why this story has come out, and why they are hammering at Benedict this way?

JF: Well, Hugh, I can’t defend the priests who committed these terrible abominations. I can’t defend the bishops who passed them around and held up the process. But Benedict is not the guilty party here. There’s three main accusations. Number one, Father Hullermann in Munich in 1980, number two, Father Murphy in Wisconsin, who was accused in ’74, and wanted to bring a trial in ’96, and then finally, Ratzinger when he was prefect at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, slowed up the process, imposed secrecy, and so on. Those are all three false. I mean, the facts are totally opposite. You want to hear a real brief outline of the facts?

HH: Yes, yes.

JF: Okay, well, as far as Father Hullermann goes, Joseph Ratzinger became archbishop of Munich in 1977. There is 750 parishes in there, 1,700 priests, 400 full paid staff, and he’s got three auxiliary bishops. So he’s not exactly able to be hands on. But in any case, he did know that the bishop in Essen, Germany, a different diocese, wanted to have a priest come to Munich, precisely to have treatment and diagnosis by a psychiatrist, and asked if he could stay in a rectory. Archbishop Ratzinger said yes. Remember, this is 1980. In those times, people thought that treatment might help. So he’s in a parish, he’s under supervision, he’s not giving any apostolic ministry, he’s not acting as a priest. Okay. Ratzinger is elected head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome in 1981. He leaves Munich. In 1982, the vicar general, Father Gruber, assigns Hullermann to a parish against the objections of the psychiatrist, Dr. Huth. But Ratzinger wasn’t even there. So there may be mistakes made on this, terrible mistakes with terrible consequences, but it had nothing to do with Cardinal Ratzinger. All he did was say yes, this man can undergo treatment and diagnosis in my diocese. Now who would have said no to that in 1980?

HH: Agreed. Now let’s move to Father Brundage and his…

JF: Okay.

HH: He had an extensive interview yesterday, and he stated unequivocally he never, ever heard of Ratzinger being involved in the prosecution of Lawrence Murphy in any way, and he would have known, because he was the guy who was running the prosecution.

JF: Absolutely. And Hugh, in addition to that, the way the Catholic Church works on these cases of sexual abuse by priests, those cases never did go to Ratzinger’s office unless it was a question of violation of the seal of confession. I was in Washington when it was called the Roman Rota. And it didn’t even have to go there. Any diocesan bishop has the authority both to go to the police, and to have his own canonical control. He does not have to go to Rome for that. So what happened? Well first of all, go to 2001. In 2001, at the encouragement of Cardinal Ratzinger…

HH: Rats, we’ve just lost him. Duane will try and get him back. And we are at 19…we were at 2001 when then-Cardinal Ratzinger takes over the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. And I think what he’s going to do is confirm what Brundage did yesterday. And while we’re waiting to reconnect, I’ve just go to tell you, this is not a hard story to report. It is being reported the way that it is being reported as a hammer on Benedict, because so much of the media is so anti-Christian, and they really loathe Benedict, because Benedict understands the world in which we live, understood why communism was so bankrupt, understands the threat from the Islamists, and they’re hammering him. Father Fessio, welcome back. You were at 2001 when we broke up there.

JF: Okay, I’m on a cell phone. That was when Ratzinger encourage John Paul II to issue a motu proprio, which was called Sacramentorum Sanctitatus Tutela, on protecting the sanctity of the Sacraments. And that was the document which said from now on, any priest abuse cases have to come before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Why was that? It was precisely because a lot of bishops were not acting quickly, were not taking, you know, the actions they should. And Rome said we’re going to intervene. This is too serious. So Ratzinger, far from being someone who blocked processes, brought these things to Rome precisely to speed up the process. But in 1996, which is years before that, five years before, Archbishop Weakland from Milwaukee brings to Rome this case of Father Murphy, because Archbishop Weakland says this has come to his attention, that it had to do with breaking the seal of confession. The allegations were made in 1974. The priest was removed from ministry in ’74, sent to live with his mother. It was known at that time it was a break of confession. There was nothing new here. And so it comes to Rome. By this time, the priest is sick and he’s dying, and Ratzinger’s associate there, Cardinal Bertone, at that time, Archbishop Bertone, says look, this guy’s too old. He’s not going to live through a trial. Let’s just make sure we take the action now without a trial. So the trial was actually going on. Two days later, the guy died.

HH: That’s what Father Brundage said yesterday.

JF: Yeah.

HH: And the trial was never suspended. It was never suspended.

JF: Yeah.

HH: So let’s get to the big issue. Why are they doing this? What do you think is the real agenda here, Joseph Fessio?

JF: Well, I mean, you can ask the New York Times about that. But obviously, the Catholic Church has moral authority, and it speaks against a lot of things which the New York Times promotes, like abortion, like homosexuality, like same sex marriage, those kinds of things. And the New York Times and others see the Catholic Church as a strong voice for truth and for dignity of the person, from the unborn to the dying, and they want to discredit that voice. So anything they can try to do to fire at it, they will. Der Spiegel in Germany, the big, it’s like Time Magazine here, they have seven editors, seven editors assigned full time to dig for dirt on the Catholic Church. I mean, you know, we’re a big target. I admit. And terrible things have happened. I don’t question that. Really disastrous things. But it hasn’t been the fault of this Pope. That’s for sure.

HH: And is it because this Pope has the intellectual firepower, Father Fessio, that makes him such a threat to the left? Remember when he was elected Pontiff, they almost had a collective stroke, they were so upset over that. But I think it’s because, not that he’s ineffective or a cover-upper of this abuse scandal, which he wasn’t, but because he is so intellectually their superior, in bringing coherence to the message of the Church, and to Christianity at large.

JF: Yes, and obviously, if they can bring him down, you know, what a tremendous victory that is for their particular point of view, that look, this man who’s been looked at as an idol, as a great theologian, as a holy man, even he’s corrupt, you can’t trust the Church. That’s what they want to do. They want to destroy the Catholic Church.

HH: Do you consider Rome’s response to have been effective thus far? Are they mounting, it’s such a difficult subject, because no one wants to be understood as defending the molesters or the cover-up. And in fact, I’ve been very harsh on many of these cardinals who were simply abettors of this for many, many years.

JF: Right.

HH: But I don’t think that’s Benedict, and I’m not too sure that the Church is actually answering these charges effectively. What do you think?

JF: Two things, Hugh. Number one, honestly, without exaggeration, I can say there’s no senior cleric in the whole Catholic Church who’s done more to address this problem than Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict – no one, not a single one. Secondly, is the Pope now supposed to go on trial before the world, and you know, spend time doing that? That’s what I’m for, Hugh. I mean, I know the facts. That’s what’s needed. The New York Times needs to simply confront the facts. If there’s something wrong with the facts that I’ve explained here, then someone should tell me and correct me. But the Pope doesn’t have to defend himself on this. The facts are enough defense, and we know the facts.

HH: Father Joseph Fessio…go ahead, we’ve got about a minute left.

JF: Well, I mean, is Rome doing enough? I don’t know. I mean, I think this is Holy Week. The Pope does have some things on his mind. I’m going to Mass right now to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, you know, which we do the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. The Holy Father’s preparing for, he had a beautiful Christen Mass this morning. I mean, this is not the time for the Pope to be defending himself against completely, obviously false charges.

HH: Well, Father Fessio, thank you for spending time with us on Holy Thursday, and have a wonderful Mass tonight, and a wonderful and blessed Easter, and we will check in with you if this continues to grow as certainly elements on the left want it to. I appreciate your taking the time with us tonight.

JF: God bless you in your work, Hugh. I appreciate it.

HH: Thank you.

End of interview.

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