This story on Pope Benedict and the current sex abuse crisis reminds me once again why John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter is an invaluable source in helping us understand what’s happening and why. It’s a long story, but in it, Allen explains how Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican’s office responding to the sex abuse claims), finally came to understand the magnitude of the crisis, and to turn things around from Rome when he became pope.
I can tell you something from my own reporting years ago. Benedict was in as much denial as anybody else in Rome, until 2002, when his fax machine at his Vatican office began disgorging round the clock reports from American dioceses detailing the horrors of the scandal from American bishops’ files. A source of mine in the Vatican likened that fax machine to a transatlantic sewer line, disgorging foulness round the clock. It woke Cardinal Ratzinger up — but John Paul wouldn’t let him move against men like the odious Marcial Maciel. It’s not an accident that the CDF didn’t begin to move against Maciel until John Paul was on his deathbed. Things really did change under Benedict, and it’s simply wrong to claim that it’s business as usual in Rome. But there’s the other shoe now dropping. Here’s Allen:
By the time the crisis in Ireland erupted last year, a new Vatican script seemed to be in place. Papal statements of concern were quickly issued, and a summit of Irish bishops and senior Vatican officials was swiftly convened for mid-February. Similarly in Germany, Zollitsch was in the pope’s office briefing him on the crisis less than a month after it first blew up.
For anyone who recalled the slow and defensive response to the American situation eight years earlier, the change in Rome seemed almost Copernican.
Therein, however, lies the rub: relatively few people know or care how far the Vatican, or the pope, have come over the past eight years.
Insiders rightly insist that Benedict XVI deserves credit for breaking the wall of silence, and for demonstrating that no abuser will be protected on his watch. Yet for most outsiders, meaning the vast majority of Catholics and virtually everyone else on the planet, all that amounts to a no-brainer that should have been accomplished long ago.
From the beginning, the “sex abuse crisis” has actually been an interlocking set of two problems: the abuse committed by some priests, and the administrative failures of some bishops who should have known better to deal with the problem.
In general, the impact of Benedict’s “conversion” has been felt mostly on that first level — the determination to punish abusers, to adopt stringent policies governing future cases, to reach out to victims and to apologize for the suffering they’ve endured. So far, Benedict has not adopted any new accountability mechanisms for bishops. Aside from a few instances such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, few bishops have been asked, or instructed, to resign.
As long as the perception is that the Catholic church has fixed its priests’ problem but not its bishops’ problem, many people will see that as a job half done.
In turn, that unfinished business is what makes the revelations in Germany so potentially damaging. To be sure, one could reasonably insist that Benedict’s policies as pope are far more important than whatever happened on his watch in Munich thirty years ago. Yet if other cases of abusers who were reassigned emerge, even fair-minded people with no axe to grind may be tempted to ask: Can Benedict XVI credibly ride herd on bishops for failing to manage the crisis, if his own record as a diocesan leader isn’t any better?
Stay tuned. Rome’s inability to discipline bishops, or unwillingness to, now must be faced. On the scandal, though, Joseph Ratzinger is not Karol Wojtyla, and is in fact a great improvement in this area. Don’t forget that. But again, the job is not finished. Yet.