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c. 2010 Religion News Service VATICAN CITY (RNS) When Pope Benedict XVI stepped out on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square on Sunday (April 4), his Easter blessing followed traditional form: prayers for parts of the world wracked by war, crime and natural disaster.
It also followed the style of Benedict himself as he remained mum on one of the biggest challenges of his papacy: the clergy sex abuse scandal dominating global headlines and placing his own decisions under scrutiny.
The scandal has intensified in recent weeks, following charges Benedict, when still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, mishandled cases of predatory priests as an archbishop in Germany and as a cardinal who oversaw cases from around the world.
Those who’ve watched Benedict for years say his silence — and an aggressive pushback from members of the hierarchy — conforms with a
long-standing pattern for both Benedict and the Vatican at large.
“Benedict XVI is legendarily someone who thinks in centuries,” said John Allen, Benedict’s biographer and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “He does not craft his homilies according to today’s headlines.”
The only mention of the scandal that’s overshadowing the church came from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, who told Benedict during Mass that “on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment.”
Whether a genuine crisis of leadership or “petty gossip,” the scandal that has reopened longstanding wounds in the church has also laid bare the differences in how the Vatican responds to controversy compared to what many lay Catholics, and the media, might expect.
“Pope Benedict was a German professor; he’s used to talking to a classroom of students, not a press conference,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “He simply doesn’t know how to deal with the media.”
Benedict’s slowness to speak is consistent with his previous measured response to the scandal. His pastoral letter to Irish Catholics came four months after a damning government report on clergy abuse was released last November.
In the absence of a direct statement from the pope, others have stepped into the void, with limited success. On Good Friday, the pope’s personal preacher, the Rev. Raniero Cantalameswa, likened criticism of the pope to hatred directed against Jews. Cantalamessa quickly apologized after Vatican officials confronted the public-relations nightmare that his words had unleashed.
The pope, however, is certainly no stranger to controversy, and previous flare-ups might offer a window into why a slow response seems to be a default position, and what he might say when he finally addresses these issues.
The last major crisis of his papacy came when he lifted the excommunication of an ultra-traditionalist bishop, Richard Williamson, who turned out to be a known Holocaust denier.
Writing to the world’s Catholic bishops a year ago, Benedict said he “deeply regret(ted)” any inadvertent damage to Jewish-Catholic relations from his decision to readmit Williamson. But he also complained bitterly of the “open hostility” and “hate” that had been directed his way, especially from fellow Catholics.
Benedict presumably feels no less injured now by complaints he failed to protect children from sex abuse, or that he showed insensitivity to victims’ desire for justice.
In recent days, church leaders have cited the internal requirements of church law, and the primary responsibility and jurisdiction of local bishops, in defending criticisms of how the former Joseph Ratzinger processed abuse cases.
The most serious charge against the pope himself concerns the Rev.
Peter Hullermann, who despite having been accused of sex abuse, was reassigned to pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Munich in 1980, when Ratzinger was serving as archbishop there. Hullerman was later convicted of molesting other children, yet continued to minister as a priest until the Munich archdiocese suspended him last month.
While a former underling of Ratzinger has claimed “full responsibility” for the decision to reassign Hullermann to pastoral work, the Vatican’s chief abuse investigator, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, has admitted the former Cardinal Ratzinger holds a responsibility “that comes from his office, a `the buck stops here’ sort of thing.”
And that, said Reese, may be one reason the scandal has spiraled beyond the pope’s, or the Vatican’s, control.
“The issue here is that the pope is a man of ideas, he’s not a good administrator,” Reese said. “The last few popes, we’ve elected intellectuals, not administrators.”
If his letter to Irish Catholics is any guide to how the pope might respond to the most serious charges, Benedict may indeed blame the scandal on lax management.
In that letter, Benedict rebuked Irish bishops for having failed “in recent decades” to enforce existing church law against child abuse, whether out of a “well-intentioned but misguided tendency” to spare perpetrators punishment, or out of a “misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal.”
If Benedict were to apply such criticisms to bishops in his native Germany, he could, in effect, acknowledge they also apply to himself, since he once presided over — intentionally or not — some of the tragic mistakes he later came to criticize and correct.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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