Walter Robinson teaches journalism at Northeastern University. Before that, he led The Boston Globe’s investigative unit, which in 2002 and 2003 documented sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese,which led to the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Robinson spoke to Marian Wang at ProPublica.org about his observations of the current clergy clergy scandals in Europe.
The situation in Germany is particularly of interest because for years, the pope—then known as Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger—oversaw the Munich and Freising Archdiocese. News reports vary on how aware Ratzinger was of a particular priest who had repeatedly molested boys, and one of the pope’s deputies has since taken responsibility for the personnel mistakes that led to further abuse. Your thoughts?
I don’t know of any archdiocese where the archbishop or the cardinal archbishop was not kept fully informed and in most cases was not heavily involved in decision-making involving any priest who was accused of abusing minors. In every diocese in the U.S., including those headed by cardinals, there was personal knowledge by the cardinal archbishop when news of abuse surfaced. It was true in Boston, it was true in L.A., it was true in Chicago.
The fact we have one archbishop in Munich that claims not to know anything is enough to make one suspicious. So the question is, if there was complicity by the pope himself, how do you get the evidence? And the evidence is in the recollections of priests who were involved who would know, the evidence is in the personnel files, and I’m not sure under German law whether there is any way whether civil authorities could force the release of those files. … One thing is certain. The church went to such great lengths to protect its bishops and archbishops in the U.S., you can imagine how far they’ll go to protect the reputation of the pope….
There’s an Associated Press story about how the number of clergy sexual abuse complaints has dropped in the U.S. Why do you think that is—has the situation really improved here?
Yes it has. Partly because, just to give you Massachusetts as an example, under laws in most states, certain people have the legal obligation—social workers, teachers, for instance—to report any allegation of sexual abuse or regular abuse of a child. If they don’t report it, they can go to prison. Because of what happened with the church here, we have a new law that requires members of clergy of any faith to report abuse—it includes them in the category of mandated reporters. The church has also reacted with special training, and there are all sorts of precautions to make sure people who work with children are properly vetted.
The extent of abuse has gone down markedly. It still occurs in all walks of life and all parts of society, but there are two things going on with the church. The first thing is their main goal was to protect the church from scandal. The second was their view of the abuse itself—and this was fairly naive—wasn’t that it was a pathology or illness, but that it was a sin, and that if the priest repented of his sin, they could reassign him to another parish. That went on—we say for decades, but no doubt has gone on for centuries—and that view has changed pretty radically. The church now recognizes that somebody who molests children should not be put in a situation where he can further molest children.