by Rachel Donadio (The New York Times)
April 29, 2010
VATICAN CITY — As the sexual abuse crisis continues to unfold in the Roman Catholic Church, with more victims coming forward worldwide and three bishops resigning last week alone, it is clear the issue is more than a passing storm or a problem of papal communications.
Instead, the church is undergoing nothing less than an epochal shift: It pits those who hold fast to a more traditional idea of protecting bishops and priests above all against those who call for more openness and accountability. The battle lines are drawn between the church and society at large, which clearly clamors for accountability, and also inside the church itself.
Uncomfortably, the crisis also pits the moral legacies of two popes against each other: the towering and modernizing John Paul II, who nonetheless did little about sexual abuse; and his successor, Benedict XVI, who in recent years, at least, has taken the issue of pedophile priests more seriously.
He has had little choice, given the depth of the scandal and the anger it has unleashed. But when supporters defend Benedict, they are implicitly condemning John Paul and how an entire generation of bishops and the Vatican hierarchy acted in response to criminal behavior.
"The church realizes that it doesn't have a way out, at least not until it confronts the entirety of its problems," said Alberto Melloni, the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, Italy.
This latest eruption of the scandal, nearly a decade after the costly turmoil in the American church, may just be beginning. Last week, a bishop in Ireland resigned, acknowledging he had covered up abuse, while one in Germany and one in Belgium also stepped down, admitting that they themselves had abused children. Other resignations are expected in Ireland after two government reports documented decades of widespread abuse and a cover-up in church-run schools for the poor.
The question, Mr. Melloni said, is whether the Vatican will hew to old explanations that pedophilia is the byproduct of a sexual revolution it had always fought, or whether it will confront the failures in church leadership that allowed sexual abuses to go unpunished.
Benedict expressed both views in a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics released March 20, his most complete remarks on the sexual abuse crisis. He said that secularism and "misguided" interpretations of the reforms of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council contributed to the context of the abuse.
But he also strongly decried "a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal."
Last weekend, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said, "secrecy and reserve, even in their positive aspects, are not values cultivated in today's culture. We have to be able to have nothing to hide."
Yet the culture of the church was for decades skewed against public disclosure and cooperation with the civil authorities.
That secrecy was made bluntly clear in a 2001 letter written by a top cardinal, who contended that this was a policy supported uniformly from John Paul on down. Only this month did the Vatican affirm that bishops should follow civil laws in countries that require reporting pedophilia and other abuse to the authorities.
This month, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, 80, a former head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, made headlines when he said that John Paul had approved of the letter he wrote to a French bishop in 2001, praising him for facing prison rather than handing over a pedophile priest to civil courts.
The priest was convicted of molesting boys, and the bishop received a three-month suspended prison sentence for not turning him in. In a radio interview last week, the cardinal upped the ante, saying the letter emerged from a meeting where the future pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was also present, The Associated Press reported last week.
Father Lombardi confirmed the letter's authenticity. But in a rare if typically oblique critique of a sitting cardinal, he said it was evidence of "how timely" it was for the Vatican in 2001 to centralize authority over sexual abuse cases with the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Cardinal Ratzinger then headed. Indeed, even some of Benedict's harshest critics concede that abuse cases have been handled better since then, even if they say they still believe there is a long way to go.
But when supporters defend Benedict, they implicitly criticize John Paul.
Even if few will acknowledge it openly, the sexual abuse crisis has cast a shadow over John Paul's legacy.
John Paul may have brought the church in line with the tides of history, but on sexual abuse he upheld a vision of the priesthood that critics say ultimately favors the hierarchy over the victims.
Some place John Paul's defense of priests in the context of his background in communist Poland, where the secret police accused clergy members of sexual crimes to undermine the church.
Yet the pope never met with victims and never apologized for sexual abuse, even long after the end of the cold war.
In contrast, Benedict has met with sexual abuse victims four times, including this month in Malta, but only in private and after intense pressure from the media.
Last year, Benedict confirmed the "heroic virtues" of John Paul, moving him closer to sainthood, but Vatican experts say the renewed attention on historical questions may delay the process.
And protecting the memory of John Paul has not completely silenced supporters of the present pope. They cite two of the most prominent and damaging abuse cases — those of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the powerful religious order The Legionaries of Christ, and Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna — and contend that Cardinal Ratzinger advocated stronger measures.
In the case of Father Maciel, a close friend of John Paul's, his supporters say that Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the case and in 2006, he was sentenced to live out his days in prayer and penance. He died in 2008. By the standards of the Vatican, the punishment was extraordinary — impossible under John Paul. To the victims and many outsiders, it amounted to very little against a man who for decades abused seminarians, fathered several children and misappropriated funds.
"While Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was perhaps the most powerful and influential churchman at the Vatican after Pope John Paul II, he would not buck the system to take action against Maciel, or earlier, in the Groër case," said David Gibson, a biographer of Benedict who writes on religion for Politicsdaily.com. "His concern for the proper order of authority, and the clerical culture took precedence."
Critics and defenders of Benedict say healing the church will require action and a full accounting of the past. That will not be easy on the legacy of John Paul.
And to protect the church Benedict has spent a lifetime nurturing, many are calling on him to explain his own past to show how he understands that the rules of the church do not conflict with the rule of law.