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Apr. 13 2010 - 4:05 pm | 2,475 views | 1 recommendation | 18 comments

Pope should apologize and explain

Pope Benedict XVI (R) speaks to reporters acco...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    To me, it is no doubt that the story has been exagarated due to personal dislikes of catholicsm and greatly atheist ideology. I want to asure the world that the church of christ will never collapse amidist all temptations. I agree that the priests might be behaving as described, meaning they have gone against their vows, God will punish them, but the world can as well punish them if they have substaintial eveidences. Attacking the pope is only showing your real hatred for the church. why dont you attack the real criminals (those priests), provide prooofs, arrest and try them? for now, it is clear that you are magnifying made up stories to defame the church which will yield nothing. we know people like you exist and your interest is to see that it is all gone to the dogs. yu are not any far from those who have ever plotted to slaughter popes. but where will you end, to the same hell together with the allegedly sinful priests. As you point at the catholic church, four other FINGERS are towards you, take note; you might be the gravest sinner ever not noticed. i will only continue to pray for spitual uplift of the catholic relegius and the church at large. the pope does not claim to be and is not above any law, it is your negative attitudes blindfolding you, this creates ignorance and you will never see any good done by the pope. it is already negatively and significantly (at P < 0.000001) deeply rooted in your heart. Again what is this, sin! heading you where—hell my friends.
    patrick Ongom Obia,
    Makere University.

  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Stricherz

    You wrote:”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.”

    How is that possible, he is infallible.

    • collapse expand

      The Pope is infallible when speaking ex Cathedra (i.e. from the Throne of Peter) on matters of Doctrine and Faith.


      God help us if that somehow is an issue here!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello Conan776,

        I thought about that after I posted, I wondered if anyone would note that nuance. It seems to me that there are two ways to look at this question.

        1) Your response is in sensu scricto of “infallibility”. My response would be this: Is the pope infallible in *determining* doctrine and faith but fallible in *implementing* them? In 1962 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter making it a “crime” for a priest to solicit sexual contact with a penitent during confession (“crimen sollicitationis”). In the case of the Rev. Murphy of Wisconsin, the center of the current controversy, he certainly violated the intent of this directive from the Holy See. Perhaps more to the point, the church has done little to actually make that directive effective. So the the question becomes, again in the sensu scricto of papal infallibility, would an admission of fault in implementing a matter of doctrine violate the concept of papal infallibility.

        2) However the question can be looked at in sensu lato of papal infallibility. Can the man at the head of the largest Christian church in the world, a position that carries considerable influence in the world based on ethical and moral stature, maintain the stature in the face of what everyone agrees is a morally repugnant situation?

        It is with no small irony that the current pope finds himself in a rather uncomfortable situation. When he first took office, he publicly disciplined two very prominent Roman priests who had had a long history accusations of child abuse against them. Ironically, Benedict has already publicly apologized for the role of the church is sexual abuse of children.

        There are actually two separate problems here, one is that of priests abusing their authority to make sexual advances on minors, mostly boys. The other problem is that of bishops either passively turning a blind eye or actively covering up for the actions of the priests.

        It is this latter problem where Archbishop Ratzinger is causing a problem for Pope Benedict. Is the current pope willing to only address the half of the problem (molesting priests) that does not involve him but not the other half (enabling bishops) which does?

        Even more broadly, can the Pope be taken seriously as a leading figure in opposition to abortion and gay marriage on moral grounds but unable to address very serious ethical in his own house?

        There you go – infallibility on trial.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    “Pope should apologize and explain…”

    …from the inside of a prison cell.

  4. collapse expand

    I’m impressed to see someone online finally distinguish between ephebophiles and pedophiles in the midst of this scandal.

    But, good luck getting rid of all the male ephebophiles in the Church, let alone in the world. Do you realize how many copies of the Girls Gone Wild series have been sold? And if you are a stickler for age of consent laws, keep in mind the only girl from that production to have become infamous, Ashley Dupre, appearing this month in Playboy, turned out to have been filmed under 18.

    Speaking of Playboy, heck — Hugh Hefner is getting it on with nineteen year old twins, and if he’s not considered a cultural icon, he certainly has his own cable show about the relationship.

    I’d say let’s get rid of the pedophiles first and try to pick our battles regarding ephebophilia somewhere down the road.

  5. collapse expand

    I like your direction on this, Mark, except that we should concede that apology is hardly enough, and in parts of your proposed apology I think the Reaganesque use of passive voice — “grave errors of judgment were made” — should be active. I’ve been uneasy with this pope since people found themselves constructing strained apologies for his membership in the Hitlerjugend. Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways, right, and those ways are particularly mysterious in the case of Ratzinger.

  6. collapse expand

    How about apologizing for obstructing investigations?

  7. collapse expand

    This is one of the better arguments that can be made.

    However, I think it’s still strained and over-reliant on tendentious media reports.

    re: the Munich case, the former vicar general has taken full responsibility. The Pope can’t exactly apologize without making this man look like a liar covering for his boss.

    There is also the matter of the original information he received.

    Unless there is new information since the NYTimes story, the documents reported in the case involved used many euphemisms and circumlocutions, like suggesting the priest should “work in a girl’s school.” These are obvious only in retrospect

    Errors of interpretation may be at issue in the case. If so, honest apologies would be trivial and unacceptable to the media firestorm.

    Errors of oversight may also be an issue. But how can these be avoided without near-omnicompetence? What if the failures derived from the limits of human ability, not from culpable action or inaction? He had oversight of 1,200 priests or so, in addition to his duties to the laity.

    Finally there is the issue of memory. The NYTimes itself said it was a busy day when the fateful issue arose. Unless we assume an eidetic memory on the part of the Pope, an honest apology about a 30-year-old event would be difficult to make without adding all sorts of concessions that would be considered insufficient evasions by the press.

    Your discussion of laicization appears to rely on questionable interpretations of fact which have already been gone over elsewhere. Were Murphy’s victims even at the funeral of their abuser? How could they be unless they already had some forgiveness in their hearts? In the Kiesle case, since he himself requested the laicization it’s hard to fault the Pope.

    Again, considering all that the CDF had to deal with, and considering their miniscule budget, one can’t apologize for not doing the nigh-impossible.

    I haven’t gone over the Weakland cases lately. If there is in fact a double standard, I think you’d have to strengthen your case by showing more details about the similarities of their cases rather than just by mentioning names.

    Playing armchair bishop on decades-old decisions we don’t know the full details of, after so many media misrepresentations of flimsy evidence, is of questionable wisdom.

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    About Me

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books, 2007). He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago (M.A. in Social Sciences, '97). In between, he worked, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for an inner-city housing agency in Baton Rouge, La. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. He, his wife, and two daughters live in the Washington, D.C. region.

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