Ross Douthat, who is Catholic and an admirer of Pope Benedict, makes sense in his clear-eyed column today. The conclusion is a bit puzzling, though:

There has been some accountability for the abusers, but not nearly enough for the bishops who enabled them. And now the shadow of past sins threatens to engulf this papacy.
Popes do not resign. But a pope can clean house. And a pope can show contrition, on his own behalf and on behalf of an entire generation of bishops, for what was done and left undone in one of Catholicism’s darkest eras.
This is Holy Week, when the first pope, Peter, broke faith with Christ and wept for shame. There is no better time for repentance.

I agree with all of this, of course, but I’m not exactly sure what Ross is calling for here. The Pope has said, or written, some strong words on the scandal. I don’t think people want to hear more words (especially of the “but everybody else was doing it, and besides, the media hate us!” sort). What people are looking for are deeds, not words, or so it seems to me. And this is the dangerous thing for Pope Benedict. As Ross writes:

The lesson of the American experience, now exhaustively documented, is that almost everyone was complicit in the scandal. From diocese to diocese, the same cover-ups and gross errors of judgment repeated themselves regardless of who found themselves in charge. Neither theology nor geography mattered: the worst offenders were Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles — a conservative and a liberal, on opposite ends of the country.

If you compel one to resign, or accept the resignation of one over this, why not the other? How do you decide? And, given that you yourself had at least a minor role in the pro forma transfer of an abuser cleric back when you were archbishop, how do you decide that one guilty bishop is now too compromised to serve with meaningful authority, but not you? It’s a problem, and not a small problem.
Incidentally, the quandary the Holy Father finds himself in demonstrates by way of analogy the way blackmail has worked within clerical ranks. A.W. Richard Sipe, the Catholic sociologist who has studied clerical sexual behavior for years, once told me:

“This is a system. This is a whole community. You have many good people covering it up. There is a network of power. A lot of seminary rectors and teachers are part of it, and they move to chancery-office positions, and on to bishoprics. It’s part of the ladder of success. It breaks your heart to see the people who suffer because of this.”

And Stephen Rubino, a Catholic and a lawyer who has represented abuse victims in court, told me as well:

“It’s the secrecy. If you’re a bishop and you’re having a relationship, and people know about it, are you compromised on dealing with sexually abusive priests? You bet you are. I’ve seen it happen.”

Understand, I’m not accusing Benedict of this! The point I’m making is simply that a sense of being morally compromised has kept many bishops from doing what they ought to have done. Back when I was reporting on this stuff last decade, a well-informed researcher told me that the abuser networks existing within the power structure of the American church operate by compromising incoming priests. If, as a priest or seminarian, you are known to have had sex even once, it is noted and remembered — and used as a weapon against you. You may be as horrified as anybody else by abuse, but you are intimidated into silence because after all, you have your dirty secrets as well. This is one way that even priests who are sickened by the sexual abuse of children are tamed. Sipe — who is a man of the Catholic left — has argued that the clerical system of sexual secrecy, and the secrets and lies it requires, is a prime catalyst for the abuse scandal, and has to be confronted if, to use his metaphor, the boil is to be lanced. On this point, I suspect that you would get Catholics as diverse and opposed as Andrew Sullivan and Michael S. Rose, a conservative Catholic who chronicled how the system works to marginalize orthodox Catholic seminarians, to agree.

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