Papalgate: The Pope's Nixon Problem

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>The ever-widening scandal over Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of Church sex abuse cases has an eerily familiar ring: it's unfolding in much the same way that Watergate played out for Richard Nixon. Each day brings new revelations, to which the Pope and his supporters respond with carefully crafted explanations and pointed counterattacks.

Is this Watergate with holy water? Here’s a look at some of the ways in which Pope Benedict XVI has found himself caught up in a scandal of Nixonian proportions…

What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

During the Watergate hearings, Senator Howard Baker famously posed the question that came to define the case against Richard Nixon: "What did the President know and when did he know it?" There’s ample evidence that Nixon had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in. So the crucial question became, What did Nixon do once he found out about White House involvement in the crime?

Pope Benedict XVI currently faces the same question: What did he know about the sexual abuse and when did he know it? The answer in each of the cases is, at least for now, ambiguous. The Pope received internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin about Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys. The bishops warned that failing to act on the matter could embarrass the church and leave it open to legal action. But the pedophile priest was never defrocked. The Vatican insists that the Pope had “no knowledge” of the correspondence—the same words Richard Nixon regularly used to describe his innocence in the Watergate affair.

It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-up

On the Watergate tapes, Nixon himself declared, “It’s not the crime that gets you… it’s the cover up.” He understood that he probably could have survived the Watergate scandal if only he had admitted White House involvement early on instead of covering his tracks. The nation might have forgiven Nixon for mismanaging his campaign, but not for obstructing justice.

Similarly, the Pope’s greatest liability is not so much the sexual crimes committed by priests—terrible as those are—but his actions following the crime. In one case, a German priest, Rev. Peter Hullerman was ordered into therapy after repeatedly molesting young boys. Hullerman was then transferred to another parish, where he continued to molest boys. Supporters of the Pope blame the transfer on a close associate, Rev. Gerhard Gruber, but it remains unclear whether the Pope may have played some role in the priest’s re-assignment.

Shoot the Messenger

As the Watergate crisis deepened, Nixon went on the offensive, attacking the institution he believed was out to get him – the media. “The press is the enemy,” he told his aides. On the Watergate tapes, Nixon can be heard griping to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, “Do you think, for Christ's sake, that the New York Times is worried about all the legal niceties? Those sons of bitches are killing me.”

The Vatican’s counterattack on the media has already begun in earnest. In a Palm Sunday address, the Pope declared he won’t be “intimidated by petty gossip”or allow “ignoble attempts” to tarnish his name. The Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, lashed out at the media as well, declaring in an editorial, "The prevalent tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and stretch interpretations.” New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan went even further, asserting in a sermon that the Pope is being persecuted by the media, and is “suffering from the same unjust accusation and shouts of the mob as Jesus did.”

The Dangers of Infallibility

Richard Nixon’s biggest mistake was that he considered the office of the President to be above the law. “When the President does it,” he famously declared during a 1977 interview with David Frost, “that means that it is not illegal.” He contended that a President can rightfully order an illegal act if he deems it to be in the best interest of the country. But the Supreme Court, in United States v. Nixon, ruled that no one, not even the President, is above the law.

The Pope is often said to possess even more sweeping authority: papal infallibility. But the doctrine of papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, even by Catholics. The doctrine does not hold that the Pope is infallible in everything he says—only on specific matters of dogma. The invocation of papal infallibility is extremely rare. Indeed, it hasn’t been called upon since 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary into heaven as an article of faith for Roman Catholics. Nothing the Pope has said or done in the sex abuse scandal is covered by the doctrine of papal infallibility. Yet the belief that the head of the Catholic Church cannot make a mistake persists.  ­If the Church fails to back away from that notion, then Pope Benedict could face the same fate as Richard Nixon – a long and bitter fight, followed by resignation.

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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