Benedict in the Dock

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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I agree with the tone of your editorial but; I say a resignstion of an 83 year old pontiff may be the only action that can restore balance/harmony to the entire Church, Is not that kind of balance and harmony worth an end of a 'reign', a reign which is very proximate anyway? It reminds me of the last days of the Japanese empire where millions were going to die while the status/ reputation of a divine emperor was debated. Basta basta

No one with any openness to truth and any sense of fairness can fail to see that this is a positive, well argued, and on the whole quite convincing contribution to the discussion. One can only hope that the Vatican leadership can come to see the benefits of listening to thoughtful advice and the dangers of relying on unthinking support.

Bouquets first: impressive editorial in many respects, especially calling for meaningful repentance on Benedict’s part.

Brickbats: “(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.)”

Actually, the CDF’s role was not a narrow one when push came to shove. It stopped the trial cold to prevent possible scandal and control secrecy (Bertone’s big fears – I’m tired of quoting minutes where the decision was made), and conveniently had a request for mercy at hand to provide cover. Weakland, the judge, and the victims wanted a trial on principle, no matter the state of Murphy’s health. Maybe Murphy’s family would have obeyed funeral restrictions if a trial were in progress. The story was very instructive about Vatican management practices.

Final questions: What Bill deHaas asks – does Ratzinger have both the will and the skill to take on the institution at its worst? Can he be transparent, open, and confrontive in the best and most healthy sense of that concept?

I fear Tom Doyle has it right, based on dreary experience: “The Vatican and the bishops will continue to respond defensively, perhaps with more creative yet still unconvincing excuses.”

Time to go pray for our church. At least there is fresh air in my local parish, and I hope in others’.


"As the history of his negligence comes to light" -- as long as the full story hasn't come to light you cannot build on it without jumping the gun.

"the incorrigible nature of pedophilia" -- I know of at least one person who moved beyond an exclusively pedophile sexuality to a decades long monogamous relationship with a man he first met as a young teen. Even if pedophile affectivity subsists, many pedophiles can renounce pedophile acting out. We need to recover the ethos of sublimation that was better understood in the era of "Goodbye Mr Chips" or "Peter Pan". Demonizing pedophiles is cruel and unchristian.

So where was God?

We have predatory priests sitting in the confessional, waiting for young boys, intent on repenting, to come and speak to them about playing with other young boys penises, or being exploited by adults around them.

The priest, then, well, you know what.

The Bishop hears about it and weighs the rights and wrongs, and decides.

Then the Vatican weighs the rights and wrongs and decides.

So where was God?

The editorial is well written, but doesn't go nearly far enough . . . the real issue is the intentional isolation of a male hierarchy which refuses to accept the feminine half of
of the human race. Of course, these isolated,
fearful men are going to continue to mistrust women and to create unnecessary sexual problems for themselves as long as they refuse to at least develop healthy exchanges and healthy relationships with women.

The hierarchy is committing a form of idolotry by putting more emphasis on the institution of the church than on the spirit of Christ and the gospels. Such an approach isn't healthy for them or for the church as a whole and it cannot possibly be successful in the long run. In its failure to accept women as equals and to examine new approaches to important issues, the timid hierarchy is literally stiffling some of the Holy Spirit's attempts to help the church.

After Vatican Council II, we kept hearing that this was now the "Age of the Laity." The Third Millenium must be. It must be because of the educated and untiring work of the laity, that we finally get to the bottom of this sexual abuse mess. It must be because of the efforts of the laity, that our Church realizes its true mission in light of the Gospels and in the gift of the Holy Spirit as evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles.

We cannot depend upon the Pope, cardinals or bishops. The priests are often too afraid of their bishops to say or do what is needed. It is the laity that must clean out the "filth" clinging everywhere in the Church.

Secrecy is the 8th deadly sin. Nothing remains a secret (ask Nixon, Clinton, etal) for ever or even for long. The resulting unveiling of what was previously hidden from view usually leads to desperate attempts to evade, cover-up, or even lie to escape blame and take responsibility for the errors made. Denial will not work for long. It will only make matters worse and any subsequent 'repentance' or 'apology' will ring hollow and seem inadequate. Time to come clean...

For these men in hierarchy, their privileges and reputations carry the highest value. They don't stand for much beyond that despite their high flying talk about forgiveness, etc, etc. They have not been shepherds, they have taken up with the wolves, they have thrown children to the wolves and they have much to answer for. Pointing to Benedict as having achieved something when he was leading CDF is a red herring. Since no one else was doing a thing, anything was an improvement. The standard is low.

Now is the time for the church to do what it has done time and again in its long and complex history:  create some astounding symbolic gesture that will again restore its role as true servant of the Gospel.

What would that gesture look like in this age of unrelenting and sometimes hostile analysis?

How about taking your word "self-abnegation" and giving it legs?  Suppose twelve  bishops whose failures of leadership especially harmed the church were to willingly give up the power and the creature comforts associated with their offices?  What an incredible sign that would be to the faithful and to the watching world!

Then, we need saints for our specific time.  Over the centuries the church has been called time and again to restoration and wholeness by its saints.  If we can get quiet for a while, I think we might hear what saints may be telling us now.  




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