Pope should apologize and explain
Everybody has an opinion about whether Pope Benedict, or more precisely then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, handled the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church well or not. Many Catholics defend Ratzinger on the grounds that he was out of the loop, had no real authority over abusive priests, or was following the Pope’s directives. Atheists assert that the pope is the leader of a criminal enterprise and should be arrested. Many non-Catholic liberals contend that Cardinal Ratzinger should have acted more swiftly to defrock priests guilty of sexually abusing children and should account for his errors, do an act of penitence, or even resign his office.
It’s interesting that opinion about Benedict’s response breaks as much along sectarian and religious lines as ideological ones. But in my humble view, none of the opinions are worthy of the vicar of Christ. The pope shouldn’t be defensive about his tenure as archbishop of Munich or as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But doing an act of penitence alone, let alone resigning, won’t be sufficient either. Instead, Benedict should apologize and explain for his failings and that of the Church; if he can do so with other bishops, all the better.
Many Catholics imply that Benedict has nothing to apologize for at all. I don’t buy this. Certainly he should apologize for not preventing the Rev. Peter Hullerman from defiling children again after he left therapy. He was Hullerman’s archbishop, after all. He had some responsibility for the wayward priests’ conduct. He wasn’t the head of a local religious order or a priest, positions that had zero responsibility for Hullerman. To be fair, Archbishop Ratzinger likely did not know about Hullermans’ sins and crimes, which is why Ratzinger’s likely offense was not grave . But Ratzinger’s lack of knowledge doesn’t mean the buck didn’t stop with him. Put another way, conservatives who blame Archbishops Weakland and Cummins for not disciplining the molesters in their ranks should also point a finger at Ratzinger.
Benedict should also apologize for not laicizing more expeditiously the convicted pedophile priests, Lawrence Murphy and Stephen Kiesle. Sure, defrocking a priest is not the same as barring him from ministry; in the case of Kiesle, he molested children even after he was laicized. Sure, the Church’s policy under Pope John Paul II was not to defrock priests until they turned 40 years old; this accounts for Kiesle’s laicization in 1987 rather than 1985. And sure, the evidence against Murphy was old and complicated. But none of those three reasons excuse allowing a convicted pedophile or ephebophile to continue as a priest. Defrocking is commonly understood as more than releasing a priest from his duties and letting him marry. It’s also understood to mean that a priest committed crimes so heinous that his continued presence scandalizes the faithful. Certainly as a teenage Catholic growing up in the Bay Area of the 1980s, I could have told you that a defrocked priest such as Kiesle was guilty of evil conduct.
Yet Benedict should not apologize for misdeeds over which he had no responsibility. For example, even the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not responsible for barring convicted child abusers such as Kielse from working in youth ministry. That Kiesele got a job even after being laicized is ridiculous. That he worked with young children is frightening. But even God’s Rottweiler could not have stopped Kiesele. That was the responsibility of my old bishop. And this is just one instance in which the press has failed to give Benedict the benefit of the doubt.
Coming up with words to apologize and explain Ratzinger’s handling of the sex abuse crisis would not be difficult. He could use language like this:
It cannot be denied that I and some bishops failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognise how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined our credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts we have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again.
Except for a few pronouns, those stern words were delivered by Pope Benedict to the Irish bishops in February. His letter wasn’t a pro forma apologia. It was clear and responsible. It showed leadership. And it suggested that unlike certain other institutions, the Catholic Church is applying a systemic solution to a real problem.