By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 6 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
The ongoing revelations about sexual abuses by priests in the
Catholic Church is bringing unprecedented attention on the role
of the Vatican and particularly on the actions of Benedict XVI.
Amidst the flurry of reports there is a danger, however, that
the facts may be obscured by the intensity of the opinions being
A recent example of this is Time magazine's June 7 cover
story. Superimposed over a photo of the Pope with his back
turned is the headline: "Why Being Pope Means Never Having to
Say Sorry." A quick glance at the section of the Vatican's Web
page dedicated to the sexual abuses, however, reveals that on
repeated occasions Benedict XVI has expressed his remorse over
the abuses of children and adolescents. In fact, the very top
link is a video with a reading of paragraph 6 of the Pope's
March 19 letter to the Catholics of Ireland in which he states:
"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry."
To help clear matters up Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson
have just published a book titled: "Pope Benedict XVI and the
Sexual Abuse Crisis" (Our Sunday Visitor). The authors are well
placed to comment on this issue. Erlandson is the president and
publisher of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Company, while Bunson
is the editor of the Catholic Almanac and also the Catholic
They start by stating that one of the lessons of the sexual
abuse scandals is not to be afraid of the truth. "The facts must
be faced, but they must also be examined with balance and
honesty," the foreword notes.
The questions about Benedict XVI's record arose with the
publication of reports about his treatment of a priest while the
future Pope was archbishop of Munich. Other accusations
followed, concerning decisions made when he was prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding cases of
abuse in the United States. The media coverage charged the
Pontiff with neglect, cover-up, and a lack of concern for the
victims of abuse.
The authors of the book reject these assertions as false, but
admit that most of the public will have found it hard to find
contrary points of view that would lead them to a more accurate
understanding of the situation. The result is that Benedict XVI
has been defamed, and also that the record of the Catholic
Church in the United States has been overlooked. During the last
few years the adoption of new norms and procedures have brought
about dramatic changes in the area of sexual abuses, the book
points out. Much of the recent media coverage, however, presents
a situation as if these changes had never happened.
Regarding the Pontiff's role while he headed the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith the authors make two important
points. First, prior to 2001 responsibility to deal with cases
of sexual abuse was spread among a number of Vatican offices,
and it was not until the publication of an apostolic letter on
May 18 of that year that all those priests charged with abuse
were assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Secondly, as the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took over the
handling of these cases he underwent a change in attitude and
realized more clearly the gravity of the situation and the need
for much more determined action.
This led him to the words he wrote for the meditations on the
Stations of Cross on Good Friday 2005, just prior to the death
of John Paul II. For the Ninth Station he declaimed: "How much
filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the
priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!"
Once the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took
charge of dealing with priests who committed sexual abuses it
moved swiftly to resolve them. This was explained in an
interview Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna gave to the Italian Catholic
newspaper Avvenire in February of this year. Around 60% of the
cases have not gone to trial due to the advanced age of those
accused, but they have been subjected to disciplinary action and
taken out of any public ministry. Overall, in a large number of
cases local bishops have been allowed to take immediate
disciplinary action, so as not to delay the implementation of
measures before trials could take place.
Some of the media reports have criticized the slowness or
lack of action by Rome in dealing with priests guilty of abuse.
But the authors of the book quote from various sources which
demonstrate that the delays were much more the responsibility of
the local American bishops than any neglect by Cardinal
Ratzinger or the officials in his office dealing with these
In fact, the authors of the book point out, one of the
factors that aggravated the problems of sexual abuse was the
failure of bishops to apply the Church laws and norms on how
these cases should be treated. It wasn't, however, only a
failure by the bishops. When many of these abuses took place,
often several decades ago, psychiatrists and many others in
society at that time did not understand the intensity of the
illness behind such acts.
While much progress has been made, Erlandson and Bunson also
make some suggestions on additional steps the Church can take.
First, the clear tone of accountability that Benedict XVI has
established needs to be continued and perpetrators must be held
accountable. Second, the Vatican should look at making some
worldwide norms, both to ensure that civil authorities are
informed of sexual abuse cases and also so that there is
consistency in dealing with cases of abuse. Third, the spiritual
renewal of the priesthood and religious life must continue.
Erlandson and Bunsen conclude their study by affirming that
the clergy sexual abuse crisis will most probably define the
pontificate of Benedict XVI. This isn't so much due to the
quantity of the scandals revealed, but more because of the
leadership role he is taking.
Before becoming Pope he led decisive actions by the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to deal with priest
abusers. Once elected Pope, he has met with a number of the
victims, rebuked the offending priests and challenged the
bishops. He has also been at the forefront of procedural reforms
that mean the Church is able to respond more quickly in dealing
with cases of sexual abuse. The book quotes Cardinal Sean
O'Malley of Boston who said that for a decade the strongest ally
the American bishops had in Rome in dealing with sexual abuse
was the then Cardinal Ratzinger.
Once elected, Benedict XVI chose as his successor in the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith an American, Cardinal
William J. Levada, someone who was well aware of the scope of
the scandals. In his messages regarding sexual abuse the Pontiff
he has spoken out clearly and strongly. He is also aware of the
need for a spiritual renewal, which came out clearly in his
letter to Irish Catholics, the book observes.
The authors admit that, like many of his generation, the
current Pope was at first slow to grasp the gravity, but he did
change to the point where "he has evolved into a historic
advocate for the reform and renewal of the Church, and he
understands the significance of the struggle."
In other words, Benedict XVI is not an obstacle to
effectively dealing with the problem of sexual abuse, but a
vital part of the solution.