Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Former Munich Vicar General Breaks Rank: Pressured to Take Blame for Hullerman Decision

I saw this news item yesterday, but didn’t want to overwhelm readers with too many stories about the crisis in the Catholic church on a single day.  It’s an important piece of information that demands attention.

This story has to do with the case of Fr. Peter Hullerman in Munich.  Hullerman, readers will recall, was reassigned to parish ministry in 1980 while Pope Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) was archbishop of Munich,  after Hullerman’s therapist begged diocesan authorities not to reassign him because he would abuse minors again.  And he did just that after being reassigned.

Readers who followed the initial news about this case will recall that when it was made public recently, the retired vicar general of the Munich archdiocese, Gerhard Gruber, took the blame for the decision to reassign Hullerman to ministry, thus shielding Archbishop Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) from blame for making a decision that, in the normal course of diocesan operations, would always be made by a bishop or archbishop.

Gruber is now speaking out.   According to Spiegel yesterday, Gruber reports that he was badgered to take the blame for the decision to reassign Hullerman and was “emphatically ‘asked’ to assume full responsibility” and to claim that he acted on his own authority, though he did not make the decision unilaterally.

Gruber has now written an open letter challenging these claims, in which he states that he was “very upset” about the “manner in which the incidents [of Hullerman’s reassignment] were portrayed” by the Munich archdiocese when news of the Hullerman case first broke.  He also states that the statement that he “acted on his own authority,” which was included in the Munich archdiocese’s recent media release about the Hullerman situation, wasn’t even discussed with him when he was badgered into accepting responsibility. 

As National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Fox says, we certainly haven’t heard the last of this story.  And as Andrew Sullivan notes in an incisive posting entitled “Richard Milhous Ratzinger,”

The cover-up continues. And Benedict is at the heart of it. To commit a de facto crime by allowing a child-rapist to go on and abuse and rape more children, and when confronted with the evidence, to pressure a minion to take full responsibility ... well it's positively Bush-like isn't it? No wonder they got along so well.

SNAP’s press statement about Gruber’s open letter is equally hard-hitting.  SNAP’s Barbara Blaine notes that Gruber’s allegation “implicates top Catholic officials in very recent deceit.”  Calling for an independent investigation of Gruber’s claims, she concludes, “If even now high ranking church staffers are lying to protect one another from criticism, that bodes ill for any real internal church reform.”

Blaine says that as we consider Gruber’s report about his role in the Hullerman case, it’s important to remember five facts:

First, church officials admit that Ratzinger knew of the allegations against the priest. Second, they admit Ratzinger sent him to ‘treatment.’ Third, church records show that a memo about the predator’s reassignment was sent to Ratzinger. Fourth, church records show Ratzinger chaired the meeting at which the predator’s re-assignment was discussed. And fifth, we know of no other case in church history in which a bishop claims that an underling re-assigned a predator priest without his knowledge or input.

Hans Küng is taking a great deal of heat for having written last week that “[t]here is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005).”  It looks to me, however, as though Gerhard Gruber’s open letter vindicates Küng.

As Watergate reminds us, cover-ups have a way of unraveling even in the most autocratic-defensive political systems, as underlings forced to take the fall for those at the top begin to assert their humanity and speak out against those who expect them to sacrifice humanity for the good of the system and those leading it.  Even in the most hierarchical and punitive institutions, this is a predictable human response when people’s humanity is repeatedly trampled on by those at the top.

Even in the Catholic church in its current restorationist moment, which reasserts papal power and privilege above all, and emphasizes the obligation of each member of the church to accede to each and every opinion held by the pope—to the views of the “ordinary magisterium”—though those opinions are not infallible or infallibly declared . . . .  Even in a period of Catholic history in which the papacy is being re-mystified and re-sacralized to an astonishing degree by those now trying to shield the current pope from responsibility for the cover-up of the abuse crisis, people inevitably break rank . . . . Even as strong obscurantist impulses in the church now seek to portray the pope as the suffering servant, the innocent victim bearing all the sins of his brother priests like Jesus on the cross . . . . 

Cracks inevitably occur in even the most autocratic systems, because like the Holy Spirit, people are unpredictable, and cannot always be counted on to ignore the claims of conscience when an institution orders them to do so to uphold the institution.

Later the same day: Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog is reporting that Gruber denies the information in Spiegel’s report.  As Sullivan notes, make of this what you will.