Something has to be said. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy, news stories — other than those in the Catholic media, God bless Catholic communications — too often added to their reports complaints that he had been sluggish in his handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
It was unfair, and this is why.
No one can argue with history. Abuse occurred, but bishops and religious superiors indeed once sent priests accused of abusing youth away for treatment, or scolded them, or moved them to other places where they could “get a fresh start,” hiding everything and putting victims second.
Like the rest of society, the Church was slow as an institution to see the injuries caused by child sexual abuse. Then media reports exposed what had been concealed, and how cases had been handled. No one could deny the facts. At first most of the cases in the Church made public were from the United States. Therefore, U.S. bishops first addressed the problem.
Clear is the collective mind of the U.S. bishops. No priest known to be guilty of sexually abusing anyone should be active as a priest in this country. Overwhelmingly, bishops individually have promoted measures to make this a reality.
In hundreds of cases, offending priests have been removed from ministry. American dioceses maintain ongoing policies and often offices to evaluate all employees who might have contact with children and then quite carefully monitor performances of these employees.
Bishops urge victims to come forward and identify abusers and/or seek assistance. Seminary programs painstakingly confront seminarians with sexual realities in life and exert great effort to detect any inclination to abnormal sexual interests. Professional mental health care providers, psychiatrists and psychologists, interview seminarians. Their testing is extensive.
Attitudes have drastically changed. Church policies realize the harm inflicted on victims by child sex abuse, especially by priests. Laypeople and clergy have come to see this.
Blessed John Paul II personally approved all these new American policies. Without such approval, they could not have taken effect. Setting a moral tone, saying that sexual abuse of youth by priests is nothing less than a “crime,” he charged Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the job of overseeing the process by which priests guilty of abusive behavior are disciplined.
Cardinal Ratzinger once told the late Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., that he devoted Fridays to the task of reviewing these cases, and he did so as a penance for the crimes committed by priests against the young.
In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. Thanks to him, many of the changes instituted in the United States are applied worldwide.
He showed concern for victims, personally meeting many of them. Court actions and private agreements expended literally hundreds of millions of Church funds to assist victims or to compensate them, somehow, for their experiences.
Investigations occur, of course, when accusations come. Everyone has the right to assert innocence if accused of misconduct. No one should be punished unjustly. All details may not be known. Many cannot be known.
Yet, Pope Benedict immediately accepted Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation after the cardinal was accused of wrongdoing, despite the cardinal’s protest of innocence. The cardinal chose not to partake in the papal conclave.
The past haunts us. Indignation, or response, is not universal. I painfully suspect that such abuse is universal. The new pontiff has work to do, but Pope Benedict XVI did his part.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.