By Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson
Much to the surprise of many observers of the clergy sexual abuse crisis over the past 25 years, the target of recent outrage in news stories and op-ed pieces has been Pope Benedict XVI. This has been more than a little counterintuitive for those most knowledgeable about the scandals and their impact.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who presides at the epicenter of the U.S. scandal, wrote recently that “the strongest ally” the U.S. bishops had in 2002 and after as they sought to address the crisis “was Cardinal Ratzinger.”
Cristina Odone, a columnist for the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, concluded that “this Pope has done more than any other churchman to address the issue of priestly child abuse.”
Justice Ann M. Burke, who was interim head of the National Review Board established by the U.S. bishops in 2002 and a harsh critic of many of the U.S. bishops, reviewed the current stage of the crisis for U.S. Catholic in its June issue. While Burke was harshly critical of the recent revelations of clergy sexual abuse in Europe and elsewhere, and said that Pope Benedict “has been ill-served” by some of his staff, she repeated past praise of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with whom she has dealt while serving on the review board. She praised Cardinal Ratzinger for “standing up to the old guard,’’ and said that Benedict “has done many good things, and on clergy sex abuse his record is better than he is given credit for.’
Yet the controversy, as played out in the media, has focused not just on the revelations in Ireland or Germany, Austria or Belgium, but on the person of Pope Benedict and on the role of the papacy. The clearest example of this was the June 7 cover story for Time magazine, which had the provocative title: “Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Time challenged the Pope to issue a mea culpa for his own alleged actions, or inaction, in Germany, and more generally for the fact that he “was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century.”
Both Time and, recently, Gary Wills, a famously alienated Catholic, who wrote a blistering assault on the entire office of the papacy in a recent issue of The New Republic, seek to call into question papal authority and the role of the office. Wills suggests that the office is a medieval contrivance. Time attacks Vatican I and the declaration of infallibility.
What is going on here?
It is important to distinguish between what this crisis is and what it is not. Providing context for the recent wave of opinion columns and editorials, as well as the legitimate news stories, is critical for Catholics who wish to understand the controversy. Many priests and most lay people have been left without that context.
We have heard from bishops who have downplayed the impact of recent revelations about the churches in Europe, particularly Ireland. They say that the recent media coverage has had little impact on American Catholics, and claim it is more an expression of the media’s obsession with the Church and their not-so-latent anti-Catholicism.
But the priests and lay people we talk to have been disturbed. More than a few have mentioned the fact that there has been little reaction from their bishops or from the bishops’ conference on the wave of revelations. The Vatican’s own media response has been less than efficient as well. Those who have followed the secular media coverage are often likely to believe the stories that somehow Pope Benedict is himself culpable. The impression left with many is that not only have their own bishops failed them, but the very head of the Catholic Church as well.
It is for all of these reasons that we recently wrote a book published by Our Sunday Visitor called Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal. In it we attempted to provide a navigation tool of sorts for the many claims being made in the current controversy. The book is an unsparing look at the crisis itself, but it also reports what has been accomplished, both in this country and by Pope Benedict, to correct past mistakes and to reform the Church.
The first questions regarding Pope Benedict grew out of revelations that an abuser priest whom Cardinal Ratzinger had admitted into his Munich Archdiocese for treatment in 1980 was later found to have been left unsupervised and allowed to abuse again. Although the archdiocese has said that the fault for his lack of supervision rests with others, and that the further cases of abuse took place after the cardinal had left for his post in Rome, the story created a firestorm of controversy.
It was in turn followed by a New York Times story alleging that “Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys.” The story sought to lay the blame for the lack of “defrocking” of a pathologically abusive priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese at the feet of Cardinal Ratzinger in his role of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This article in turn launched a torrent of claims by other news agencies and papers, and was soon amplified by television news media and Internet commentary.
The heavily repeated theme was two-fold: That no progress has been made with regard to the Church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis. If anything, it is getting worse. And second, Joseph Ratzinger, as an archbishop in Germany, as a cardinal and head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope, has committed acts of neglect, cover-up, and disregard for the plight of the victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.
Both assertions are false, but the stories are complicated, and those who are not familiar with canon law, theology or the practical experience of how the Church operates are understandably in the dark when it comes to seeking the proper context for these stories.
The result has been the defamation of the one Church official over the last decade who has understood clearly the scale of the crisis of sexual abuse and who has labored to end it and to reform the Church in such a way that institutionally it never happens again—Pope Benedict XVI.
Likewise, the genuine record of progress has been completely neglected. For the last eight years, the Catholic Church in the United States has undergone a transformation through the application of the so-called Dallas Charter and the imposition of the Essential Norms, by which dioceses created safe environments for children, launched a “zero tolerance” policy regarding abuse, and worked to improve the formation of priests and seminary system. The results have been nothing short of dramatic. The audit by the National Review Board found that in 2009 there were a total of six cases of reported sexual abuse of minors in the entire Church in the United States.
However, with the latest accusations, it seems as though the last eight years and the progress made in them simply never happened.
As Cardinal O’Malley, Justice Burke, and many others have testified, both as cardinal and pope, Benedict played a critical role in combating the scourge of sexual abuse in the Church. The Pope has not been afraid of controversy, most notably in the actions he took against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. He has spoken out, quite plainly and with increasing passion, on the scandals, and he has sought to lead a thoroughgoing renewal not just of the priesthood, but of the entire Church.
If we were to propose talking points to the many pastors, priests and deacons who are being asked about the recent scandals by their staffs and by their people, we would focus on these seven points:
1. The Church has always been confronted by the problem of sexual sin and the failings among some members of its clergy, and while this number has never been large, the Church has labored over the centuries to curb such abuses.
2. Although modern Church leaders have made grievous mistakes, and the criminal acts of certain clergy have been overlooked or unaddressed or mishandled in the past in too many dioceses, the Church is dedicated to redressing these wrongs and making sure that every safeguard is in place to protect children and families.
3. Cardinal Ratzinger himself became increasingly convinced of the need to rid the Church of what he called the “filth” of abuse, and emerged as one of the Vatican’s most dedicated leaders in confronting the growing crisis.
4. Pope Benedict’s actions in the first years of his pontificate showed a forthright desire to address the sexual abuse crisis in word and deed. He has continued to address the topic repeatedly and directly, in a variety of situations, most recently on trips to Malta and Fatima, at the close of the Year for Priests, and most eloquently in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland.
5. The U.S. Church, which was for several years at the epicenter of the scandals, is now leading the way in establishing norms and providing guidelines for dealing with abusers, assisting the victims and preventing further crimes.
6. As Church leaders in many countries now confront the sexual abuse crisis in their own dioceses, they are looking to Pope Benedict for leadership and to the U.S. Church for a roadmap to reconciliation, reform and authentic justice.
7. Pope Benedict is not only dedicated to ending abuse among the clergy, but also sees that the Church must seek spiritual renewal if it is to be purified. Abuse is a problem for society as a whole, but we must first seek to renew the Church, seek repentance for the sins of our fellow members, and then address the epidemic in society.
We know that the burden of the scandals has placed a terrible cross on the vast majority of priests who have done no wrong, yet have been tarred by the actions of some of their brothers and the failure to take action on the part of many of their leaders.
Pope Benedict, in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, said:
…Many of you feel personally discouraged, even abandoned. I am also aware that in some people’s eyes you are tainted by association, and viewed as if you were somehow responsible for the misdeeds of others. At this painful time, I want to acknowledge the dedication of your priestly and religious lives and apostolates, and I invite you to reaffirm your faith in Christ, your love of His Church and your confidence in the Gospel’s promise of redemption, forgiveness and interior renewal. In this way, you will demonstrate for all to see that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).
Our hope is that our book will encourage Catholics to seek out the full story, giving them the context to understand the gravity of the situation, but also to face the future with great hope. Pope Benedict has issued a call to all of us, priests and laity, to take heart, to reaffirm our faith in Christ and to seek the renewal of his Church at this dawn of the twenty-first century. It is up to us to respond to his call. TP
MR. ERLANDSON is the publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. DR. BUNSON is editor of the Catholic Almanac . Their book Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis can be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.