Setting the Record Straight

Author: Father John Flynn, LC


Setting the Record Straight

Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Father John Flynn, LC

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 expressed.

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 Answers magazine.

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 matters.

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.  


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