Most media reports about Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis — as pope, previously as head of the Vatican office tasked with investigating such crimes, and even earlier as archbishop of Munich, Germany — have got it plain wrong, as the senseless speculation about whether the pope will resign proves. 

Far from being complicit in clerical sex abuse or its cover-up, Pope Benedict has been a key figure in getting the Vatican aggressively involved in addressing the scandal and rooting out what he called the “filth” in the Church. He was the first to move against Legionary of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, and to impose canonical sanctions on him. He was the first to summon an entire bishops’ conference — Ireland’s — to take action at a national level. 

And yet he is being “scourged at the pillar” in the world press, as New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan puts it. Columnists have called him a “grisly little man” and “sin-crazed ‘Rottweiler.’” A recent political cartoon shows him distributing “pederast pervert passes” to a line of priests who then run straight into a crowd of young boys. A homosexual activist group is calling for him to be arrested when he visits Britain later this year. 

There are two things to distinguish here. First, the allegations of clerical sex abuse that have cropped up across Europe must be addressed swiftly, openly and fairly. For Catholic Americans, there is understandably a painful sense of déjà vu because the clerical sex abuse crisis broke here almost a decade ago. But the Church’s efforts here have paid off: Accusations of sexual abuse have slowed; new leaders have emerged, and new policies have been crafted that are now a model for other organizations. 

It is quite another thing to seek to scapegoat the pope. 

The journalistic herd has now jumped on the resignation bandwagon, with superficial reporting that ignores both the facts and the context. 

There are many agendas at work, and while we do not claim that there is a vast conspiracy behind this media barrage, it is useful to point out that a lot of people do not mind the Church being put in a defensive position: Catholics angry at Church leaders; interest groups who oppose Church teachings on a variety of topics; journalists treating the Church like any other corporation and wanting to topple the guy at the top. 

Ringing, and useless, calls for a papal resignation ignore the boring facts of the latest round of scandals, and they will not be taken seriously by the pope himself or members of the hierarchy. Nor should they be taken seriously by us. 

They do, however, have an impact. Ordinary, good-hearted Catholics — most of whom get the bulk of their news about the Church from the secular media — are dismayed and defensive. 

For them, we urge reading the pope’s letter to the Irish people on the sexual abuse crisis there, and to see it as his advice to us as well. 

First, apologize from the heart. We must acknowledge, and never forget, the pain of those who were abused. 

Second, the pope urges us to devote our Friday penances for one year, from now until Easter 2011, for the healing and renewal of the Church. On Fridays we should all offer our fasting, our abstinence, our prayer and works of mercy for this intention. 

Third, we should pay particular attention to Eucharistic adoration, praying in the presence of the Lord for a renewed sense of mission on the part of our leaders and ourselves. 

At the end of the day, this crisis has always been profoundly spiritual. The New York Times may never understand that fact, but Pope Benedict most certainly does.