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Katie van Schaijik

The Dreyfus affair and clerical sex abuse

Apr. 7, 2010, at 4:14pm

Dismay over the recent defensiveness of the Vatican and lay Catholic spokesmen like George Weigel and Bill Donohue regarding media reports of clerical sex abuse cases and cover-ups has got me thinking again about the Dreyfus Affair.

I hope those who know it better than I do will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there is a clear parallel with the situation we face today.

In sum, in 1894 a Jewish captain in the French army was falsely accused and imprisoned for treason.

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a [Catholic] French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.

The officers involved evidently persuaded themselves and each other that if the truth were known, it would bring scandal on the military, the most important institution in Catholic France after the Church. In using Dreyfus as their scapegoat, they banked partly on the natural prejudice of the French public in favor of Catholics and against Jews.

It was the fiery public denunciations of the cover-up by the left-wing writer Émile Zola that forced a re-examination of the case and led finally to the complete exoneration of Dreyfus. The reputation of the Church in France never recovered.

The moral of the story is multi-faceted. Of course scape-goating is immoral. It also backfires. We cannot serve the reputation of the Church by covering-up injustice. (Can a skin graft heal a gangrenous wound?) Not only will the truth eventually come to light, but in the meantime, the infection is spread further throughout the body. More injustice has to be committed to keep the original one hidden. Those who are seeking the truth have to be vilified or silenced; those lying have to be protected, even favored.

Dreyfus was a Jew and Zola an anti-clerical secularist, yet, is it not obvious that every Catholic ought to stand on their side against the Catholic conspirators?

For how long did we Catholics shut our ears to the accusations we heard against priests and bishops, attributing the scandal to an anti-Catholic media culture?

It is with all this in mind that I read two recent articles by Jason Berry, the Catholic journalist who wrote the 1997 Hartford Currant piece that first made public the accusations of sex abuse against Legion of Christ founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. (He is also one of the authors of Vows of Silence, a book and DVD about the Legion.) Berry and the newspaper were widely vilified at the time by conservative Catholic Legion sympathizers for publicizing baseless, scurrilous attacks against a manifestly good and holy priest. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Deal Hudson, Bill Donohue, and Mary Ann Glendon, among others, publicly defended Maciel. By all accounts, Pope John Paul II himself trusted Maciel and refused to listen to his accusers.
But they were telling the truth; Maciel was lying.

This week Berry has a piece in the National Catholic Reporter revealing that Maciel paved his way in Rome by lavishing cash and gifts on certain key Cardinals and Vatican officials, including the late Pope’s personal secretary. He has another rather disquieting piece in Politics Daily today about “the Vatican’s point man” in the scandal, Cardinal William Levada, whose background does not inspire confidence.

I believe Pope Benedict is serious about “cleaning up the filth” in the Church. But there’s a awful lot of it, and I fear we will have to come to grips with more bad news before we can be confident that we’re on the side of truth and right when we defend the Vatican against journalists, not all of whom are anti-Catholic. I wish our intuitive solidarity in this matter were more readily with those who have been proven right rather than with those who have been proven wrong.

Joseph Bottum’s brief response to Berry’s NRC article in First Things’ Public Square is disappointing in its grudgingness. He takes some unnecessary swipes at the competition and fails to acknowledge either the role his magazine, among other conservative Catholic outlets, played in delaying justice in the case of the Legion, or the yeoman’s work Jason Berry has been doing, in the face of fierce opposition from fellow Catholics, to bring the truth to light.


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