Pope Benedict faces an epic scandal as victims of clerical sex abuse in Ireland, Western Europe and America raise the issue of justice denied by secret tribunals that allowed predators to remain priests. Yet an editorial in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, scored the media for "an ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict and his closest aides at any cost."
Benedict is grappling with an unfinished crisis that drew media coverage in America in 1992; victims' lawsuits revealed bishops who had sheltered predators from prosecution. By 1994 the coverage had ebbed. Then, in 2002, The Boston Globe gained access to voluminous documents, exposing a vast clergy sexual underground. Pope John Paul II called the American cardinals to Rome for an emergency conference. In June, the U.S. bishops enacted a youth protection charter. Lay review boards would comb clergy files and investigate new accusations. Bishops began weeding out sex offenders.
The Vatican drew the line, however, at giving these review boards the authority to investigate bishops. That decision has come back to haunt the church.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in late 2002, remains today part of the Roman Curia and pastor of a great basilica, St. Mary Major. In recent years, at least 16 bishops who sexually abused children quietly "stepped down." One was a cardinal, Hans Hermann Groer of Austria, who has since died. A Vatican double-standard -- priests subject to defrocking, bishops quietly moving on -- has made the pope vulnerable to even greater criticism amid a new round of investigative reports.
Benedict's most immediate task is to change the Vatican's archaic system of closed tribunals, which prize secrecy. The pope is final arbiter on canon law, a sovereign who has the power of a one-man Supreme Court to intervene, halt or change a canonical decision. But changing that system is a much tougher reform than meets the eye.
Ironically, for all the bad press he is getting, Benedict has done more to confront the abuse crisis than anyone else in the Vatican. But he must choose between governing and upholding his theological vision as a moral absolutist. As many a president and prime minister has learned, the shift from an ideological stance to a pragmatic one can be laden with risk.
The root crisis lies in the church's view of apostolic succession. The pope and bishops consider themselves descendants in a spiritual lineage from Jesus's apostles. Apostolic succession is as much a part of Catholicism as icons and stained glass windows. But Judas was also an apostle -- a reminder that all humans, regardless of proximity to the Word, are capable of betraying the faith. Apostolic succession has fallen victim to hubris, the pride and entitlement of a religious elite who consider apology or penance a substitute for human justice.
Bishops answer directly to the pope, also known as Supreme Pontiff. But this monarchical system of governance is colliding with two pillars of democracy, a court system and a free press. As abuse victims clamor for the punishment of bishops, information from America holds a stirring of hope. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released data that show a 32 percent decline in reported cases of clergy abuse from last year. Most involved priests were deceased or out of ministry. The USCCB reported six victims in 2009 who were younger than 18. Six too many, yes; but after an estimated $1.8 billion in losses from payouts to victims, legal fees and therapy for sex offenders, the youth protection charter is taking hold. Moreover, 96 percent of Catholic school students have "safe environment" training to warn against improper adult behavior.
The Vatican has no youth protection charter, nor binding procedures for the world's bishops. Some church leaders, however, now see a crisis in that aloofness. Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany bravely distanced himself from the Roman Curia in telling Italy's La Repubblica, "We have to seriously clean up the church."
Benedict faces a stark dilemma. To "clean up," he must challenge apostolic succession, start a process of sacking bishops who abused children, and demote prelates who grossly betray the trust. Such as:
- Frank Rodimer, who as bishop of Patterson, N.J., used church money to pay $250,000 after he was personally sued in a case with a priest who for several summers had sex with a boy in a beach house they shared with Rodimer. The priest went to prison. Rodimer stepped down, on reaching the retirement age at 75, and simply moved into a house the diocese bought.
- Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who used church money to pay $450,000 in 1998 to silence a former male lover. When ABC News broke the hush money story in 2002, Weakland resigned his office -- but not his title. As archbishop, he was high-handed toward victims while playing musical chairs with pedophiles.
- Anthony O'Connell, who resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., in 2002, admitting that he abused a seminarian years before. He moved into a South Carolina monastery.
To defrock bishops who abused children would send a vital signal to all Catholics that Benedict is serious about reform. His recent letter to Irish Catholics, which followed lengthy government investigations of the church, was strongly worded. Citing "grave errors and failures of leadership," he said: "I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way church authorities in Ireland dealt with them." His words evince a deeper struggle: "I openly express the shame and remorse we all feel."
Still, his delay on the offer of four Irish bishops to resign spurred more outrage, as did his role as archbishop of Munich, decades ago, in approving treatment for a pederast. Will Benedict demote bishops for "grave errors"? That would mean a new juridical standard.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was decisive in running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is housed in a 17th-century palazzo where Galileo the astronomer was convicted of heresy. On issues ranging from the Vatican prohibition of birth control devices to Liberation Theology of Latin America, the C.D.F. used anonymous investigators to critique the works of suspect scholars. In closed tribunals, Ratzinger and his assistants interrogated those out of step with doctrine, punishing some by excommunication or orders to keep silent for periods of time. Catholic liberals were aghast as Ratzinger clashed with some of the church's leading thinkers. The Swiss theologian, Father Hans Küng, famously called him "The Grand Inquisitor," after Dostoevsky's religious persecutor in "The Brothers Karamazov."
Ratzinger's belief in absolute moral truth drove him to confront the pedophilia scandals when just about every other Vatican leader recoiled from it.
John Paul, so brilliant a geopolitical figure, stood passive as scandals jolted America, Ireland, Canada and Australia in the 1990s. In 2001, Ratzinger persuaded the pope to take the authority for such cases from scattered Vatican offices and consolidate them in his tribunal. Insisting on secrecy from bishops sending the files, the C.D.F. began defrocking scores of priests.
Küng wrote in a March 18 essay for National Catholic Reporter: "Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at least pronounce his own 'mea culpa' " -- Latin for "my fault."
Küng is an esteemed scholar, but this opinion is off base. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest organization in the world, and as split as Congress in its warring tribal camps. Who could orchestrate a global cover-up of anything? The crisis arose in countries that share a base in English common law with surgical discovery procedures for secret documents. Italian law is more restrictive; Italy has reported far fewer cases. Most cardinals in the Curia look to Italy as a base line, which has created a huge myopia, to put it charitably.
In a 2005 Good Friday sermon, Ratzinger decried the "filth" that had crept into the priesthood. Several days later, in a sermon opening the conclave that would elect him pope, he gave a cri de coeur on Europe: "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive."
The crisis of moral relativism he faces now is internal. Consider the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, 82. As secretary of state under John Paul II, Sodano defended to the hilt the notorious Father Marcial Maciel. Maciel, who died in 2008, was a Mexican who founded the Legion of Christ, a small religious order known for militant spirituality, papal loyalty and a $650 million budget. The Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who lent The New York Times $240 million, was a major benefactor.
In 1997, nine ex-Legionaries opened their lives for the Hartford Courant, telling me and Gerald Renner how Maciel had sexually abused them in seminary. Asserting his innocence, Maciel refused to be interviewed. The Vatican was utterly silent on our questions about victim accusations against Maciel that went through church channels to Paul VI in 1976, John Paul II in 1978 and 1989. In 1998, the men filed a prosecution request in Ratzinger's tribunal. Sodano pressured Ratzinger to halt the case. Maciel and Sodano were close friends for years. As secretary of state, Sodano was effectively John Paul's prime minister. Finally, with the pope dying in 2004, Ratzinger broke ranks with Sodano and ordered an investigation. In 2005, Sodano's office stated, falsely, that the investigation was over. In 2006, Benedict banished Maciel to "a life of prayer and penitence."
The Legion then compared Maciel to Jesus for refusing to defend himself. When he died in 2008, the Legion Web site said Maciel had gone to heaven. In 2009, the Legion revealed with "surprise" that Maciel had a grown daughter. On March 4, in Mexico City, Maciel's three grown sons (by a second woman) publicly accused the Legion of denying them financial compensation. Two of the sons said Maciel had sexually abused them as boys.
A new investigation of the Legion, ordered by Benedict, is under way. If he follows his theological bearings, Benedict has the capacity to engineer radical reforms (from the Greek, meaning roots or primary things). He should disband the Legion of Christ. If he holds listening sessions with a representative group of victims, he will dramatize reconciliation to a scandal-wearied church that aches for moral leadership.
He should also convene a group of legal scholars to create a Vatican criminal court system. By forcing bishops and cardinals who have done the most damage out of the hierarchy, he can restore integrity to the concept of apostolic succession. It is probably beyond him to make the celibacy law optional; but if he takes these other hard steps to reverse the scandal, he will put himself on the right side of history. To stall or continue making merely symbolic gestures will produce an even worse spectacle.
"Justice is that virtue that gives every one his due." -- St. Augustine.