Here is the text of Pope Benedict’s letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland. There are plenty of very strong words in it, and a level of detail and directness that is incomparably better than the vague euphemisms Benedict’s predecessor used to talk about the scandal, when he bothered to talk about it at all. Remember too that on more than a few occasions, Benedict has met with victims of pederast priests; John Paul II, for all his personal sanctity, never did. I do wish Benedict would go further, and hold select bishops more directly to account for their sins and failings, including aiding and abetting serious crimes. Maybe this will satisfy Irish Catholics, I don’t know. He’s their pontiff, not mine. On the other hand, I wonder if anything he or any other pope might do can satisfy the anger over this. I wonder too if the Irish people are angry at their civil authorities, who, the official investigation found, collaborated with church authorities in suppressing knowledge of this evil, and the justice that ought to have been done for those children and families.
This is not just an Irish problem, or an American one, or one limited to any national church. You might have missed the lengthy Dallas Morning News investigation in 2004 uncovering an international “rat line” in which Catholic bishops as well as the Salesian religious order helped spirit accused child sex abusing priests across international borders to keep them out of the hands of the authorities. Who will be made to answer for that by the Vatican? Writing in the Boston Globe, Joan Vennochi puts her finger on what always was the key outrage in all this:
Allowing Law to escape accountability is the Vatican’s original sin.
Since the Boston scandal, a disturbing history of clergy sexual abuse, and an institution committed to covering it up, has been revealed across this country and abroad, in Ireland, Australia, and now Germany. The current pope has met with victims of clergy abuse and apologized for the sins of the past.
But deep apologies and strong, new anti-abuse policies avoid the root problem. Church higher-ups like Law shuffled predator priests from parish to parish and then escaped legal responsibility for their actions. The church provided sanctuary and with each revelation, it is clear why.
What happened here was part of a much larger pattern. What was happening in Boston was happening in Munich, with the blessing of the archbishop in charge. The practice of protecting predators rather than children was institutional. It spanned the globe and accountability extends to Rome.
I remember back in 2003, a parish priest, a good and kind man of impeccable Catholic orthodoxy, telling me with anguish in his voice that he was certain his bishop would sell him and every other innocent priest in the diocese out to protect himself and the hierarchy. That feeling was common among priests of the Archdiocese of New York in 2002; I attended an unofficial meeting called by them (I had been invited by a priest who has since died), and listened as they openly shared the same fears. Not every bishop is equally culpable, and not all bishops are culpable at all. But the root of the scandal never was pervert priests molesting children; sadly, there is no way to completely stop that in any church, or school, or organization like the Boy Scouts. The root is and always has been what the bishops did when knowledge of these grotesque crimes came to them.
That is what has been left unreformed. Vennochi perhaps touches on why: because if you start holding one bishop accountable, where do you stop?
Anyway, I know nothing about the legal situation in Europe, but at this point, I will be very surprised if anything comes of this. As in America, the dogs will bark, but the caravan will move on. If you had told me back in 2002 that Cardinal Law would have been the only bishop to have resigned in connection with his misgovernance of his diocese related to the scandal, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are eight years on, and it’s true. The story is over. The bishops gutted it out — and they won.
UPDATE: In the light of morning, I wish I hadn’t put this post up. I don’t need to go back into the thicket of this story, which still has the power to mess with my head. This past weekend, thinking over Phillip Blond’s message, and examining my doubts that his program can come to fruition absent a general religious renewal in the West, the broader cost of the scandal weighed on my mind in this particular way. The bishops may have “won” in that nearly all of them are still standing, still holding on to their positions, despite this moral catastrophe in which most of them were deeply complicit. But it is a Pyrrhic victory, because the cost of their maintaining the status quo is a further erosion of the church’s moral authority — this, at a time when Western civilization desperately needs the prophetic moral witness of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. It is certain, as a matter of dogma and logic, that the truths of the faith do not depend on the moral integrity of any or all bishops; but that is not how things work in the real world, in the hearts of ordinary human beings, which are the real battlegrounds on which souls are won and lost. Civilizations too.