With Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican is finally taking a hard line on child abuse.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 22 2010 11:19 AM

Making Amends

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.

With Pope Benedict XVI. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI 

The ground shifted in the Catholic Church's analysis of, and response to, the sexual abuse crisis on Saturday.

The church in Ireland has been engulfed in the scandal since a November 2009 government report, the Murphy Report, unearthed a woeful series of abuses and cover-ups, cataloging the abuse of children by 46 priests in the archdiocese of Dublin between the years 1975 and 2004. The report was damning, not only for the priest-pedophile but also for the bishops who failed to confront the problem. "The Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets," the report concluded. "All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities." Four bishops named in the report have since tendered their resignations.

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI summoned the bishops of Ireland to the Vatican for two days of meetings to discuss the crisis, at which he pledged to send a special letter to the church in Ireland. In that pastoral letter, released Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI widened the blame from an exclusive focus on the pedophile perpetrators to the bishops who enabled them. "It cannot be denied," the pope wrote, "that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations," resulting in the sad, no longer deniable fact that the bishops' lapses have "seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness." The pope ordered an "apostolic visitation" (the ecclesiastical euphemism for an investigation) of the church in Ireland and instructed the bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting wrongdoing.

To Americans, the pope's words may seem mild. We're accustomed to having the main characters of our sex scandals show up in risqué Vanity Fair or GQ photo spreads. But ever since the sexual abuse crisis erupted in the United States in 2002, the church has directed most of its criticism, and its remedial steps, at only the abusers, not those implicated in the concealment—an utterly ineffectual approach. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that the sexual abuse of minors was horrific. What galled, what really gave rise to a sense of betrayal, was that the bishops did not respond to this abuse with the appropriate horror.

The pope's letter was delivered in the middle of the liturgical season of Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter, when the church prepares for its holiest celebration with days of fasting, alms-giving, and, most especially, penitence. For the Vatican hierarchy, it may have seemed like an unending Lent since the sexual abuse crisis first burst upon the scene. But, in his letter, the pope shows an awareness that the sufferings of the hierarchs are nothing compared with the suffering of the victims of clergy sex abuse. In a passage specifically directed to the victims of abuse, he writes: "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. … It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel." Only with this kind of honesty can the church's hierarchy escape its self-inflicted Lent. Pope Benedict gets it. And he has given notice that bishops who don't get it will be replaced.

The words of regret directed to the victims—"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry"—may help victims heal, but Benedict's willingness to hold bishops accountable is what is needed to mend the church. This crisis was never the result of lax oversight here or a poor decision there. The cancer grew because the ecclesiastical culture in which it grew was conducive to the cancer's growth. And that culture must change.

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."

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