Changing the Vatican's Response to Abuse

By The Editors of the NY Times
March 17, 2010

As the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church continues to unfold, Pope Benedict XVI said he would issue a letter to Irish Catholics on Friday to help "repentance, healing and renewal."

The pope himself has been embroiled in the case of Peter Hullermann, a German priest who was convicted of molesting children but had been allowed to work in Munich for more than 30 years until his suspension on Monday. The pope, the former Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, had served as head of the archdiocese where the priest worked and was later the cardinal in charge of reviewing sexual abuse cases for the Vatican.

What lessons should have been learned from the church's handling of the American sexual abuse cases? What questions should be asked of the Vatican and what should it do?


A Test for the Pope

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of "The Rise of Benedict XVI."

From the beginning, the "sex abuse crisis" in the Catholic church has been composed of two interlocking, but distinct, problems: priests who abused, and bishops who failed to clean it up. That distinction helps explain the very different perceptions of how well the church has responded.

Church leaders sometimes grumble that Catholicism is being unfairly criticized, given that arguably no institution has done more in recent years to weed abusers out of its midst and to foster a safe environment for children. "Zero tolerance" is now official policy, and Pope Benedict XVI has made it clear that no one, however well-connected, gets a free pass.

Yet victims' groups and reformers still insist that the church has not done enough. Often what they mean is that while the priests' problem has been solved, the bishops' problem has not. Few new safeguards about how bishops exercise their authority have been adopted. Fairly or not, many people see that as a job half done.

To address that perception, the church might consider new accountability measures for bishops. There's precedent: the Council of Trent, after the Protestant Reformation, issued a whole set of decrees for bishops, governing their physical presence in dioceses, requiring them to set up seminaries, and so on. Responsible bishops would have nothing to fear from a similar set of reforms today.

In turn, this is why recent revelations in Germany are potentially damaging to Pope Benedict. One case of an abuser-priest reassigned in the Archdiocese of Munich while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge, in the late 1970s and early '80s, is now on the record.

One might reasonably think that his policies as pope are far more important than his brief stint as an archbishop 30 years ago. Yet if other cases emerge, people may begin to ask: Can the pope credibly ride herd on bishops, if his own history as a diocesan leader isn't any better?

Much about the church's ability to exit from the crisis — and, perhaps, about Benedict's legacy — may hinge on his ability to deliver an answer.


Act Quickly and Publicly

Nicholas P. Cafardi is dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law. He was former chairman of the American bishops' National Review Board. He is the author of "Before Dallas," a history of the clergy child sexual abuse crisis in the United States.

The church in Europe is now confronting a sexual abuse crisis like the one the American church weathered in 2002 and the years after. The matter was reasonably well-handled in the United States when bad publicity and the activism of victims groups finally got the bishops' attention.

Complaints about priests sexually abusing minors in American dioceses have dropped to nearly zero today. What can the church leaders in Europe learn from the American experience?

First, take ownership of the crisis. Get out in front of it. Admit the wrongdoing, offer solace to the victims and apologize publicly, often and sincerely. Suggesting, as one Vatican official did, that the church is sorry, but, you know, sex abuse is not limited to the church, is not a good idea. Nothing that diminishes the church's expression of sorrow will help the victims, and the victims need help. This should be the church's first priority.

Second, allow an investigation by a non-clerical panel, and cooperate with that investigation. That is what the American bishops did when they established the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, composed of lay people. The bishops cooperated with the review board and the John Jay College of Criminal Law, whom the board engaged to study the crisis. When the investigation is over, publish the results and apologize again. Transparency is critical to repairing this crisis.

Third, put a system of checks into place so that sexual abuse of youngsters by priests and the failure of bishops to respond can never happen again. Zero tolerance must be the law. No priest who would injure a child belongs in ministry. No bishop who would enable that abuse belongs in a chancery.

The norms that the American bishops adopted in Dallas in 2002 would be a good starting point — with some changes, not the least of which is that such norms should cover not just priests and deacons, but bishops as well.

Maybe such norms could even become a part of the church's universal law, since this problem has now shown itself to be no respecter of national boundaries.


No More Second Chances

Jim Fitzgerald is the executive director of Call To Action, a national Catholic justice organization, and Nicole Sotelo is the group's communications director and the author of "Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace."

Scripture shows us that Jesus often gave people a second chance to make things right once they were shown the truth. Roman Catholic Church leaders today have had chance after chance to do justice not just in individual cases of sexual abuse survivors, but also to remedy what is at the root of the church's sexual abuse crisis. Unfortunately, they haven't done either.

The roots of this crisis are perpetuated by the secrecy and lack of accountability that has been the modus operandi by church officials for decades. Decisions to hide cases from the public and to harbor pedophile priests has allowed perpetrators to walk freely, abusing child after child. Some bishops still refuse to fully comply with their own internal audits that are meant to safeguard children, and other bishops continue to fight in court against legislation that would allow survivors to bring their cases forward.

What we have learned is that the bishops will not remedy the situation on their own. Survivors, Catholic laity and local news media must hold the bishops accountable.

According to its own report this weekend, the Vatican has seen more than 3,000 cases — that's 3,000 chances — during the last decade to remedy the sexual abuse crisis and hasn't. Now that the alleged cover-up potentially extends to Pope Benedict XVI himself, the highest official in the Vatican, government officials must step in to investigate the crimes.

The Vatican has had its chance to correct the problem. As far as we are concerned, that's it: the lives of too many children are at stake.


Simply 'Incapable'

David Clohessy is the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group.

Lord Acton's observation that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the sad and simple lesson from the Catholic abuse and cover-up scandal now spreading across Europe.

Information about the crisis comes from three sources: church officials, researchers and experts, or from secular agencies with subpoena power (like grand juries in the U.S .and the government reports in Ireland). Only truly independent third party investigations are credible in these cases. And virtually every one of these investigations finds that church officials ignore or conceal horrific child sex crimes for one reason: because they can.

Law enforcement officials are at a disadvantage in holding corrupt bishops accountable. Why? Because the public generally defers to clerics.

And considering the fact that only two or three bishops, out of 5,000 worldwide, have resigned for covering up predator priests, it's clear that church laws and courts are ineffective in doling out punishment. Indeed, the church culture is such that prelates who protect church secrets and assets are tolerated and even promoted.

Thus lawsuits, settlements and news media coverage don't deter recklessness, callousness and deceit by bishops.

The Vatican should order bishops to turn over priest personnel files to law enforcement. It should beg secular officials to launch investigations and prod lawmakers to reform archaic, predator-friendly laws (like statutes of limitations). But it won't.

History and common sense tell us that no institution can effectively police itself. This is especially true with an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy that has a horrific track record involving felonies. As a grand jury concluded, after a thorough examination of abuse and cover-up in one New York diocese, the Catholic hierarchy is "incapable" of dealing with clergy sex crimes with integrity, compassion and effectiveness.

The only solution is for civil and criminal authorities to intervene to protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded.


Papal Self-Criticism

David Gibson is author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World." He covers religion for

The first thing Pope Benedict must do is to make sure that all information related to abusive priests and his own tenure as archbishop in Munich, before he became pope in 2005, is made public.

Far too many American bishops gave partial answers about their handling of abusers, even as they swore they were telling the whole truth. The steady drip of fresh reports erodes the church's credibility far more than a full and immediate disclosure.

The second thing Benedict, the former Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, needs to do is apologize. While he may not have dealt directly with the German priest and serial child abuser who was sent to Munich when he headed the archdiocese, he is accountable nonetheless.

A lower-ranking official of the archdiocese has said that he returned the priest, Father Peter Hullermann, to parish life after the pope approved Father Hullermann's transfer to Munich in 1980 for treatment. The official has also said that the pope, who was head of the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982, was not aware of that subsequent assignment.

Some find that explanation unlikely, given Benedict's great concern for priests wherever he has served. Others think it is in keeping with his distaste for the tedium of church administration. In the end, he was responsible for overseeing Father Hullermann.

Acknowledging his own failure to act decisively in that case and admitting his slowness in recognizing the wider reality of clerical abuse — and episcopal malfeasance — would be welcomed and likely sufficient. Catholics want to support the pope, and are not eager to condemn him for decisions that he, like many other bishops, made three decades ago.

But how he expresses his apology will be critical and his Lenten letter to the scandal-weary Catholics of Ireland, expected this week, is the perfect context for such an act of contrition.

Unfortunately, self-criticism does not come easily to Benedict, as shown by his hedged responses to various missteps during his five-year reign. Yet, he did eventually heed evidence about the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S., and he has been far more aggressive in disciplining abusers than his beloved predecessor, John Paul II.

Still, abusive priests have remained the focus of Benedict's sanctions, rather than the bishops who oversaw them. He seems to consider the actions of bishops forgivable misjudgments, a view that may look suspect in light of his own record in Munich. The question now is whether that habit of mind can change, too.