With Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican is finally taking a hard line on child abuse.
Also in Slate, Christopher Hitchens calls for the Catholic priests who abused children—and the men who covered it up—to be prosecuted.
The resignation of the Irish bishops in the wake of the Murphy Report was a necessary first step in changing the culture of the hierarchy. Twenty years ago, ambitious clerics would exhibit what the pope calls "a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal." But it is now clear to bishops throughout the world that the quickest way to end your career is to look the other way when charges of sex abuse are leveled. Requiring bishops to work with the civil government guarantees that the church's belief in a merciful God, capable of forgiving all, will not conflict with society's need for justice. Finally, the pope seemed to indicate that the steps taken in the United States, where lay people monitor the church's compliance with the zero-tolerance policy adopted in 2002, could be a model for the rest of the world.
Pope Benedict XVI's views on the crisis have clearly evolved over the years, as the National Catholic Reporter's Rome correspondent John Allen has reported. When the crisis in America first erupted, the Vatican seemed inclined to discount the allegations as the work of a mean-spirited, anti-clerical press corps.
But, in 2001, then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was put in charge of the investigations of the charges. (In his Slate article on the subject last week, Christopher Hitchens mentions that this office was formerly known as the Inquisition, but he fails to note that the curial office in Rome had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition, which is what most people think of when they hear the word.) Ratzinger had to read through the dossiers that listed the depraved molestations and rapes of children. He had to read of the consequences of bishops sweeping the abuse under the rug in a misguided effort to protect the church's reputation and to advance their own ecclesiastical careers. More than any other cardinal, the full scope of the crisis became apparent to him.
The evidence for this changed perspective came shortly after his election. For years, credible charges had been leveled against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the arch-conservative religious order the Legionnaires of Christ. Maciel had powerful protectors in Pope John Paul II's circle, particularly the pope's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, cardinal secretary of state, whose full-length portrait graced the Legionnaires' Roman college. No action was taken against the aged priest while John Paul II lived. Within weeks of his election as pope, Benedict suspended Father Maciel from the exercise of his priesthood, ordered him into seclusion, and subsequently began a full-scale—and ongoing—investigation of the Legionnaires.
In 2008, when Pope Benedict visited the United States, he addressed the crisis several times, and head-on, during the trip, and met with five sexual abuse victims. They report that he was profoundly moved by the encounter. "I said, 'Holy Father, I was an altar boy when I was abused, in the sacristy, a place where I prayed, and I want you to know I was not only sexually abused but I was spiritually abused,' " said one after the meeting. "And I said, 'Holy Father, you have a cancer in your flock, and you need to do something about it.' And then I gave him an Irish bread from my mother."
Michael Sean Winters is the author of Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images.