In his last years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and from the beginning of his papacy, Pope Benedict has demonstrated a real understanding of the nature and scope of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. He came to that understanding much too slowly, but once he grasped the dimensions and horror of the scandal he acted with diligence and genuine remorse, accelerating the process for removing priests, meeting with victims, and demanding at least some measure of accountability from his fellow bishops.

Much of the pope’s good work in this regard is now likely to be brushed aside as the history of his own negligence in handling an abusive priest when he was archbishop of Munich thirty years ago comes to light. It should not be surprising that then-Archbishop Ratzinger accepted an offending priest from another diocese, placed him in therapy, and immediately reassigned him to another parish where he abused more children. Burying rather than confronting the problem of abusive priests is what nearly every bishop did at the time.

Why did bishops insist on holding on to priests and thereby endangering children? The answer is more complicated than many want to admit, involving archaic ideas about the remedy for sexual sin, troubling notions about the sacrosanct nature of the priesthood, and a different societal attitude about how to respond to such abuse. Certainly some bishops acted perfidiously, and not nearly enough of them have been held accountable. Most bishops, however, had a poor understanding of the incorrigible nature of pedophilia, a strong conviction about the need to avoid “scandalizing” the faithful by publicly exposing the crimes of priests, and a stronger felt obligation to protect the reputation of the church. As a consequence, bishops took, or perhaps sought out, bad advice from mental- health professionals, as well as from lawyers who insisted that victims be treated as adversaries. The bishops also got terrible advice from Rome, where many churchmen—incredibly—continue to see the crisis as a “media conspiracy” against the church.

There is some reason to believe that, at least in the United States, most bishops no longer think this way. When it comes to protecting children, the U.S. church has learned that transparency, full cooperation with civil authorities, and a system of checks and balances that engages the laity and independent experts is the only way episcopal credibility can begin to be restored. It is past time for similar policies to be adopted by the whole church. For what is truly startling about the reaction to reports concerning Benedict’s time in Munich, as well as the reaction to the wave of revelations of sexual abuse by priests throughout Europe, is how little has been learned by the Vatican about the need for a frank and thorough accounting of past abuses. No sentient person could believe the denials church officials in Munich and the Vatican made on behalf of the pope, saying Benedict played no role in the transfer of the abusive priest. With dreary predictability, documents have surfaced showing that the pope had in fact presided at the meeting where the transfer and reassignment were approved. Even if Benedict paid little attention to such administrative details, as archbishop he was still responsible for putting that priest in a place where he could abuse again. The church should have made this story known to the public years ago. Mistakes can be forgiven; what breeds mistrust and cynicism is the refusal to admit error. (Recent stories in the New York Times concerning Benedict’s failure as head of the CDF to defrock an American abuser in the mid-1990s were more sensational than enlightening. That episode hinged on the CDF’s narrow jurisdiction over cases involving solicitation during confession. The CDF was not given the task of investigating all sexual-abuse accusations until 2001. Still, the story was a useful reminder of how the Vatican resisted efforts by American bishops to laicize abusive priests.)

Some are now calling for Benedict’s resignation. That seems very unlikely. But an act of penitence on the part of the pope and the world’s bishops, one that goes well beyond pro forma apologies to victims, is desperately needed. Benedict is a deeply prayerful man whose fervent faith infuses his every act, utterance, and hope. For more than half a century he has urged the church toward ressourcement, toward the recovery of what is best in the neglected spiritual practices of the past. Now it is time for him to show how traditional Christian repentance and self-abnegation can perform miracles, for nothing less than a miracle is needed.


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