Pope’s role in fighting sex abuse

The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI began and ended in the shadow of the clergy sexual abuse crises that have plagued the Church. The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI took place in the wake of the pedophilia revelations that exploded in 2002 in Boston. 

In the intervening years, it spread beyond the United States to Belgium, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. On the eve of the pope’s resignation, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned after allegations from four priests that he had acted inappropriately with them decades earlier. Cardinal O’Brien also said he would not attend the conclave to elect the next pope.

Apostolic letter

The persistent revelations and allegations particularly focused on child sexual abuse by members of the clergy meant that for most of Pope Benedict’s pontificate experts in the Church’s handling of the crisis have had to spend years working to refute the thoroughly discredited claim that the pope had failed to act properly in dealing with the crisis and may even have been complicit in coverups and transferring abuser priests. 

Cardinal Ratzinger was only made aware of the sheer scale of the sexual abuse crisis gradually. Before 2001, cases had been handled by the Vatican in a scattered fashion owing to older complexities in Church law. As the crisis erupted in the United States, Cardinal Ratzinger became increasingly convinced of the need to rid the Church of what he called the “filth” of abuse, and he emerged as one of the Vatican’s most dedicated leaders in confronting the growing challenge. 

He pushed to have Pope John Paul II assign responsibility to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to oversee all of the cases worldwide. On May 18, 2001, the pope promulgated an apostolic letter titled Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (“The Safeguarding of the Sacraments”). The document was most noteworthy for the fact that it confirmed the CDF’s responsibility for disciplinary review and action regarding violations associated with abuse, including the solicitation to a sexual sin (a sin “against the Sixth Commandment”) under the pretext of the confession if involving the confessor himself or the granting of absolution to “an accomplice” in a sexual sin by the confessor. 

It also said that it reserved to the CDF the responsibility for reviewing sexual violations “committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of 18 years.” Such acts are “to be punished according to the gravity of the offense, not excluding dismissal or deposition.” In canon law, the age of a minor was listed as under 16 years. In the 1990s, the U.S. bishops had asked that the age of a minor be defined as under 18 so that it would match state law in defining the upper age of minors. The letter also addressed a long-standing request by U.S. bishops that the statute of limitations be lengthened, in this case to 10 years, rather than five, after the victim has reached his or her 18th birthday. 

In short, what the apostolic letter did was require bishops to report cases of clergy sexual abuse to the CDF, marking a major change in the way the Church approached the crisis.

Assistance to U.S. bishops

Cardinal Ratzinger next assisted the bishops of the United States as they dealt fully with the problem of clergy sexual abuse in 2002. The bishops introduced 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 the seminary system. Cardinal Ratzinger was instrumental in streamlining the approval process by the Holy See. In the United States, the results have been nothing short of dramatic. The audits by the National Review Board found that in recent years the numbers of annually reported cases of sexual abuse of minors in the entire Church in the United States had declined to single digits.

Media attacks

Once elected in 2005, Pope Benedict moved swiftly to enforce the reforms needed for the Church. He took action against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who had been accused of abusing minors. He brought to Rome the bishops of Ireland and Germany to receive reports on their actions to implement norms and programs to safeguard children in every area of Church life and ministry. 

Even as he implemented these reforms, he fell under constant attack by the secular media. He was accused, for example, of allowing a priest-abuser into his archdiocese when he was the archbishop of Munich-Freising. The priest in question, Father Peter Hullermann, was later convicted of child sexual abuse by German authorities and given an 18-month suspended sentence and a fine. The New York Times attempted to blame then Cardinal Ratzinger, but the facts were that while the case exemplified the mishandling of pedophilia cases that have plagued many dioceses, then Cardinal Ratzinger is known only to have approved the transfer of the priest seeking psychiatric treatment for issues of a sexual nature. More attacks followed, including accusations that while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he had failed to act against abuser priests in the United States. Once again, the stories were debunked.

Penance, healing

Pope Benedict was also accused of failing both to meet with victims and to apologize for the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse. In truth, Pope Benedict met with abuse victims on multiple occasions, including during his visit to the United States in 2008. He privately apologized to victims in his sessions with them. He also spoke in unmistakable terms of penance for the Church. He said plainly, “I am ashamed, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen in the future.” The most pointed apology issued by the pontiff was his “Letter to the Irish,” in which he wrote: “You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” 

Finally, during his time as pope the CDF mandated that every diocese implement basic norms for handling cases, subject to the specific laws of each country, and imposed time frames for their implementation. The norms for all of the world’s dioceses are based on the norms first established for the Church in the United States in 2002 and that have proved successful in creating a safe environment for children and those serving the Church, and in reducing drastically the number of cases each year. Cristina Odone, a columnist for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, has concluded that “this pope has done more than any other churchman to address the issue of priestly child abuse.” 

Matthew Bunson is co-author with Greg Erlandson of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (Our Sunday Visitor, $12.95).