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Pope's Exit Strategy on Clergy Sex Scandal: Prayerful and Quiet

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VATICAN CITY -- Monday was an official holiday in the Vatican, with the city state's regular employees (there are about 4,600 of them) getting a day off and a small bonus to mark the five years since their boss, Benedict XVI, was elected pope.

Benedict himself was taking it easy as well, enjoying a low-key luncheon with 46 cardinals and resting after his emotional 24-hour visit to Malta the day before, a visit that included a brief but intense closed-door meeting with eight men who as children had been sexually abused by priests at their orphanage.

At the lunch in the Vatican, the embattled pontiff praised the cardinals for standing by him: "In this moment, the pope, very strongly, doesn't feel alone. He feels he has all the cardinals near him sharing tribulations and consolation," according to an account in the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano.

The clergy sexual abuse scandal has become the hallmark -- and millstone -- of Benedict's papacy at the five-year point, and the encounter with victims was just the latest episode in the long-running crisis that has overwhelmed his past record and future plans on other fronts.

While some see the Malta meeting as signaling a shift in Benedict's approach to the scandals, papal observers and Vatican insiders -- as well as Benedict's own history -- raise serious doubts about whether the pope has an exit strategy beyond what he has done already, which does not appear to be much, at least if judged by his sparse public statements.

Benedict has been virtually silent on the abuse crisis, talking at most in oblique terms about the "sins" and "wounds" suffered by the church, and, as he did Monday in his remarks to the cardinals, telling that the trials meant the church "is experiencing, ever more, the consolation of God."

In reality, Benedict has always been loathe to change once he has taken a position, and in the sexual abuse crisis that perseverance in the face of criticism infuriates his many critics and even confounds some supporters, who feel the pope's reluctance may become a self-destructive intransigence if the scandals drag on and more damaging information emerges about abuse cases and the pope's role in them. (On Monday, in fact, reports out of Munich indicated there may have been efforts to cover up the pope's involvement in a sex abouse case when he was archbishop there in 1980.)

Why does Benedict think this way? It can be difficult to say -- and this is part of the pope's PR problem -- because he has refused to answer questions from the media or even to discuss his reasoning with many of his advisers. But several factors can help to explain his worldview, and why he may have great difficulty extracting himself and the church from the crisis anytime soon.

The first reason is theological. That orientation should come as no surprise, given that Benedict has long been one of the church's preeminent theologians, a man who spent just one year in a parish after his ordination in the early 1950s and the rest in academia or senior church positions debating theological issues. Benedict's theological riff on the present crisis is one in which he identifies himself in almost Christ-like terms, as the "suffering servant" who is unjustly accused but who accepts the criticisms as penance for the sins of others.

In fact, comparing the pope to Christ on the cross has become a regular theme among the pope's defenders, like Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who in his Palm Sunday homily said that like Jesus, the pope faces "the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar."

Understanding the distinction between being a sacrificial figure and sinner helps to make sense of Benedict's increasingly frequent references to the importance of doing penance, of the need for purification, and of God's grace as the guarantee of overcoming sin.

To some, his comments can sound like an apology of sorts, or at least an indication that the pope is struggling with his own conscience over the scandals. That may be, as he clearly does not exclude himself from those who must repent. But repent for what, exactly?

For Benedict, the penance seems to refer to the sins of abusive priests, while he also lays blame on modernizing trends in the world and the church, or even a lack of sufficient devotion by ordinary believers -- a factor the pontiff cited in his letter last month to the Catholic of Ireland, which has in fact been the most devout nation of Catholics in the world.

Moreover, his exhortations are followed by a reminder that the criticisms of the church's sins are themselves unjust, and even an organized campaign comparable to that of the Nazi and Communist regimes of the last century, as he said in a homily last Thursday. "A conformism under which it becomes obligatory to think as everyone thinks, to act as everyone acts, and the subtle or not so subtle aggression against the church demonstrate that this conformism really can become a real dictatorship," he said.

Benedict made a similar point during his visit to Malta, referring obliquely at one or two points to the sex scandals but also pointing to "the world's attacks on our sins" as an opportunity for healing and witness to the faith. Seen from that view, the more the critics pile on, the more Benedict is reinforced in his sense of moral and spiritual correctness, and the eventual triumph of the church. This is a strain of thinking that has run through his talks and writings since he was a priest in his native Germany, and later as Cardinal Joseph Raztinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the church watchdog agency on orthodoxy.

Certainly, martyrdom is a foundational element of Christian witness. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith," the church father Tertullian wrote in the second century. But whatever Benedict is enduring in terms of criticism, it is not the martyrdom of St. Stephen in Jerusalem in the first century or Oscar Romero in El Salvador in the 20th century, and there is a danger of confusing genuine persecution with a persecution complex.

Instead, his reaction, or lack thereof, can come across as a kind of passivity in the face of the suffering of others. "He is a very humble man, and that is a strength and also in today's world, it's a problem," said an American churchman who has known Benedict for many years. "He accepts things. He feels this is what God wants to happen."

The second factor underscores that theological vision, and it is that Benedict doesn't feel he has done anything terribly wrong. That is clear from the fierce defense by his aides (in often over-the-top comments that don't help their boss much) and in a few indications from Benedict himself. "I admire the pope for his courage in meeting us. He was embarrassed by the failings of others," said one of the sexual abuse victims who met with the pope in Malta on Sunday.

In truth, Benedict is hardly the mastermind of some global, Vatican-led conspiracy to shield child abusing clergy. There is one case from his tenure as archbishop of Munich (1977-1982) in his native Bavaria, that of a child-molesting priest, Father Peter Hullerman, who Cardinal Ratzinger allowed into the diocese in 1980 for psychiatric treatment and then allowed to return to parish work, where Hullerman went on to abuse more children.

While he was head of the CDF at the Vatican (from 1982 until he was elected pope in 2005), a number of cases regarding punishing abusive priests landed on his desk, and it appears clear from the available record that until a few years ago he did not move very aggressively against the abusers, and it seems he expressed greater concern for the church's reputation than he did for the victims.

None of these cases, even taken together, would create the kind of fierce reaction that has besieged the pope in recent months. But the cases came in the midst of a wider "tsunami" of revelations (an Austrian cardinal's term) that has swept across Europe and angered Catholics and others. Moreover, because Benedict has steadfastly declined to take any responsibility for his own relatively minimal failures, or even to speak publicly about what he knew and when, his silence has condemned him in the court of public opinion.

Also, Benedict is at heart an old-fashioned moralist who sees the "sins" for which the church must repent almost exclusively in terms of the sexual abuse committed by priests. Bishops who shielded child molesters were, in Benedict's view, largely guilty of misjudgments and management errors. Many of Benedict's top officials and allies in the Vatican themselves have very questionable records when it come to dealing with abusive priests, and the fact that they go unpunished, and are even given plum jobs, will only underscore the gap between Benedict's words and his actions.

A third problem is that Benedict's world view is reinforced daily by a papal court that tells him what it thinks he wants to hear. In many respects, the 108 acres of the Vatican City State has become an ecclesiastical "panic room," with occupants locked inside with enough provisions -- they believe -- to outlast any assault.

Benedict's top aides have, famously by now, compared media reports about clergy abuse to anti-Semitism or petty gossip, or to Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels' propaganda against the church during World War II -- a suggestion just a few days ago in an essay in the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference.

Marcello Pera, an Italian senator who is an atheist but also a cultural conservative who sees Benedict as a crucial ally in preserving Europe's Christian heritage, recently blamed the criticism of the pope on a war "between secularism and Christianity." He then delivered one of the most delicious defenses yet: "Benedict XVI remains impregnable because of his image, his serenity, his clarity, firmness and doctrine. It's enough for him to smile to defeat an army of opponents."

Actually, it's not, and if Benedict thinks it is, he may find his papacy mortally wounded while he endures as pope. "I don't know who's giving him advice, or if he's getting any from the outside," said a worried -- but low-ranking -- curial official.

A fourth factor is a simple one: Benedict does not like to say he's sorry. "Never apologize and never explain -- it's a sign of weakness," as John Wayne said in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

Benedict seems to agree, at least with the first part. In the many crises of his often feckless papacy, Benedict has responded to gaffes by explaining that he had been misunderstood (the Regensburg speech on Islam) or that he should have used Google (the rehabilitation of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson). The pope never actually admits that he may have been wrong, or at least imprudent, in doing or saying something. And again his fans take his non-apology as a way of showing that in fact he was wily because the disaster brought more clarity to an issue.

John Paul was somewhat different, in that he developed what might be called a "theology of apology" that aimed to shine a light on the "dark pages" of the church's history. He apologized for the church's condemnation of Galileo, for the "errors and excesses" of the Inquisition, and for Catholicism's role in the wars of religion that scarred Christendom. He issued mea culpas for the Crusades, and specifically to Muslims and Jews for sins committed against them by Catholics. With the approach of the millennium, John Paul launched a formal program of penance saying that "only the courageous admission of the faults and omissions of which Christians are judged to be guilty" can lead the church forward. By the time John Paul died, he had acknowledged past mistakes by the church on more than 100 occasions, or asked for forgiveness, or even formally apologized.

For many church leaders, this campaign of penance was simply too much. Chief among the critics was Cardinal Ratzinger, who once publicly criticized the effort "a kind of masochism" and "a somewhat perverse need" for the church "to declare itself guilty for all the catastrophes of past history."

To Ratzinger, the great danger is that such criticisms might encourage the risky perception that since the Catholic Church had been in error in the past, it therefore could be wrong today, and just as perilously, could be open to change and reform.

A fifth factor is also pretty straightforward -- Joseph Ratzinger doesn't like to be pushed around. Who does? But Benedict often reacts by tweaking his critics.

For example, in championing the canonization of his wartime predecessor, Pope Pius XII, Benedict created one of the enduring controversies of his papacy. Pius' record during the war has been a subject of enormous contention, focusing on whether he helped save Jews from the Holocaust or whether he was essentially "silent" and missed a chance to be a heroic figure. Given that Benedict himself is a German who was raised during the Nazi era (and had no sympathies for the Nazis), this hardly seems like an issue he needed to get behind.

Yet during his post-Easter break Benedict spent an evening watching a biopic about Pius, "Under the Roman Sky," that portrays the pontiff in a sympathetic light. This just didn't leak out. The Vatican released photos of Benedict, dressed in his white cassock, watching the film on a huge screen at the papal villa of Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, and it released a statement in which Benedict gave the movie two thumbs up and praised Pius himself. Given that Benedict was facing the gravest crisis of his papacy, over child abuse, it seemed a provocative choice of entertainment. (Couldn't the Vatican get a DVD of "Up"?)

Similarly, Vatican officials have made it clear that the pope will not be pressured into making moves on the sexual abuse crisis if they seem to be playing to the crowd.

Even some diehard conservatives and supporters of the pope have told me he could have headed off this entire crisis by apologizing and explaining for the cases in which he acted slowly or failed to act. But he didn't, and the longer the crisis goes on, the harder a genuine apology will become.

Finally, Benedict has always taken the long view, and he's not about to change that, either. The pope thinks he can ride out anything -- a classic Italian trait, especially in Rome. But it is also a very Benedictine view. Like the Catholic Church, Ratzinger likes to think in terms of centuries, not news cycles: sub specie aeternitatis, from the view of eternity, as the phrase has it.

"He has seen a lot throughout his long life -- the Second World War, the Second Vatican Council, the changes after the council, the papacy of John Paul II -- and being 83 he has seen a lot of water go under the bridge," said Father John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest here in Rome who is a frequent commentator on Vatican affairs. "Because of his own experiences in life, as well as his own experiences as a church leader and as pope, I don't think we're going to see anything major in reaction to all of this."

Wauck, a savvy observer of the media as well as the Vatican, not only believes the media has been unfair in its reporting on the abuse cases and on Benedict, but he also believes that the uproar will fade.

Can the "pope-a-dope" strategy work? Or will it come off as impassivity in the face of demands for a prophetic stance?

"Pope John Paul would have gotten very upset by all this," said a bishop who knows both popes. "I'm not sure the present Holy Father gets upset about it. It saddens him, to be sure."

That hardly seems appropriate to the depth of the crisis, or the nature of the tragedy of the sexual abuse of children by priests. Many Catholics from different camps have used the crisis to propose different solutions, from a greater role for women, a return to optional celibacy for priests, the need for another council, or the need for greater orthodoxy and fidelity to the pope.

But Father Vincent Twomey, an Irish theologian who studied under Joseph Ratzinger, may have come closest to the best solution, which is also the simplest.

The "real cause" of the crisis, Twomey wrote in The Irish Times back in December as the scandal was just starting to spread, "is the lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children."

"Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told," Twomey wrote. "Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others."

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