By Gregory Erlandson
HUNGTINGTON, Indiana, 8 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
It would probably be
too much to ask that Time magazine run a cover story on the bold
statements and concrete actions that Benedict XVI has taken to
address the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
No self-respecting journalistic enterprise wants to be separated
from the pack when it comes to covering a controversial news
story, which means it must always follow the herd, even when the
evidence points elsewhere.
But the Time magazine June 7 cover story is a particularly
frustrating example of a media enterprise playing to prejudices
with half-truths even to the point of severely misrepresenting
"Why Being Pope Means Never having To Say You’re Sorry: The Sex
Abuse Scandal and the Limits of Atonement" is the provocative
headline splashed across the most recent Time cover, which also
features an image of the back of Benedict XVI's mitered head.
Lest we have any doubts where this is heading, the lead sentence
of the story manages to drag in the Inquisition: "How do you
atone for something terrible, like the Inquisition?"
The gist of the story is that as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he
wasn't so up to apologizing for the Inquisition, and he isn’t
really doing enough to apologize for the clergy sexual abuse
crisis, either. Time magazine wants the Pope to offer a personal
mea culpa, particularly for his handling of a case in Germany
when he was archbishop of Munich, and more generally for the
fact that he "was very much part of a system that had badly
underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse
that spread through the Church in the past half-century."
The story, written by Jeff Israely (reporting from Rome) and
Howard Chua-Eoan, while appearing to be about the sexual abuse
crisis, is really a subtly written assault on the papacy itself,
making the following case:
1. For the past two centuries, the Vatican has centralized power
and authority over the Church, including the declaration of
papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
2. This centralization is how it has managed to control its
docile flock even as it has lost temporal power.
3. At stake in the sexual abuse crisis is the prestige and power
of the papacy and the Church’s own authority.
4. There needs to be some sort of acceptance of personal guilt
on the part of Pope Benedict for his actions, despite all he has
done to address the crisis.
5. Such an admission of guilt and apology would call into
question, however, the "theological impregnability of the
papacy" and hasten other changes in the Church that will
diminish its size and authority.
The provocative headline of the article
"Why Being Pope Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry"
makes more sense in this narrative because it yokes the claim of
infallibility to the current crisis, making the papacy the
center of the abuse story.
The fact that the Pope has apologized repeatedly thus becomes
irrelevant for Time magazine
despite the obvious contradiction of the headline
because the apologies are just a public relations strategy to
head off a greater challenge.
In laying out this political analysis of the last 200 years of
Church history, the article also serves to bolster the case of
those lawyers seeking damages from the Vatican for sexual abuse
cases that occurred in the United States. Since the Vatican was
so centralized and domineering, the question of its liability
for the handling of individual local cases becomes more
Thus, after recounting the many positive steps the Pope has
taken, Time still concludes that he is hedging: "He assigned
wrongdoing not to the Church but to its servants." This, the
magazine suggests, is to protect the Church from legal
liability. "The consequences of sin are subject to divine
salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview
of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public
humiliation and the loss of property."
Time quotes an Irish theologian: "This very centralized Church
[tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case
since the end of the 19th century." Here it ties everything back
to the First Vatican Council and its statement on papal
infallibility. In keeping with the heavy editorializing of the
entire story, it sums up Vatican I as a "stage-managed" council
that used a "suspect majority of bishops" to approve
infallibility, thus allowing the Roman Curia to become "ever
more centralized and domineering."
While the article dismisses "a purportedly impromptu crowd of
150,000 people" who showed up to cheer the Pope one Sunday
(although no one claims it was impromptu), it lauds plans for a
"Reformation Day" in October being organized by victims of
clergy sexual abuse to "pressure the Vatican to act" and to
"take back" the Church.
The story gets so many details wrong, that defenders of Benedict
XVI in some ways don't know where to start.
Infallibility has nothing to do with the story of sexual abuse.
The centralization of authority is more stereotype than truth,
as witnessed by the diversity of Catholic voices, the
independent actions of many bishops, the rise of the national
bishops' conferences and on and on. If anything, what is
frustrating to many Catholics and puzzling to non-Catholics who
hold a simplistic view of papal authority is that the Pope
cannot just rule by arbitrary decree. (It is ironic that this
same misunderstanding permeates the controversy surrounding Pope
Pius XII and the struggle with Nazism.)
The real story is this: Benedict XVI is aware of the scale and
the scope of the crisis worldwide. He has taken decisive actions
(such as the removal of the founder of the Legion of Christ). He
has intervened strongly in Ireland, with a remarkably honest and
plain-spoken letter to the Irish Catholics, a visitation of top
prelates to study the root causes of the crisis and how it was
handled, the acceptance of several resignations by bishops, and
a high-level meeting with Irish prelates at the Vatican. He has
quite clearly led the way in encouraging local bishops’
conferences to address their scandals head on, and he has laid
out the language for understanding the crisis: Endorsing the
search for truth, calling for penance, not blaming the media or
enemies outside the Church, but pointing to the enemies within.
Mistakes have been made. Grievous mistakes. Mistakes were made
by bishops, by priests, by psychiatrists and police and judges
and yes, even by well-intentioned and grief-stricken relatives.
The cost of these mistakes is very high, and the Church will
have to pay these costs. But efforts to make Benedict XVI part
of the problem rather than part of the solution would be an even
bigger mistake, for it is he who is providing real leadership on
It is Benedict XVI who is refusing to circle the wagons and
understands the spiritual as well as the canonical and civil
issues at stake. It is Benedict XVI who is championing the
necessary reform and renewal that the scandals demand.
* * *
Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday
Visitor Publishing, and co-author of the newly released "Pope
Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and
Renewal" (2010, Our Sunday Visitor).