Abuse as the “Defining Moment” of Benedict’s Papacy

In an effective analysis at the Times, Richard Owen argues that the whole clerical abuse saga may well turn out to be Pope Benedict’s defining moment. For far too long, the church authorities appeared to totally ignore the problem and brush it under the carpet. Even as recently as the visit of the Irish bishops, the impression created was that he was totally underestimating the problem.

“Papal Whitewash” ran one headline in the Irish press after Pope Benedict’s encounter with the Irish bishops. No bishops were sacked, no abuse victims were heard, and the Pope — who is to visit Britain in September — announced no plans to visit Ireland to apologise and to mend fences.

More recently, there has been some grudging recognition that more may need to be done, but this still does not go beyond absolute basics. Instead, they have gone on the defensive, trying to argue (against all the evidence) that the Vatican response has been “decisive” and that other institutions are equally guilty.

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The Vatican has only slowly — and reluctantly — moved from refusal to face the problem of clerical sex abuse to attempts to deal with it publicly as the scandals and lawsuits multiply. The Pope’s spokesman argued defensively this week that the problem was wider than the Church, and even claimed the Church had acted “decisively and swiftly”.

The suspicion lingers in the Vatican that the crisis is all part of an anti-Catholic plot to undermine the Church — or as the Pope’s brother put it this week, to foster “a spirit of animosity” towards it.

The Church, Vatican officials maintain, is being singled out unfairly. Last year the Holy See stated that “in the last 50 years somewhere between 1.5 per cent and 5 per cent of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases,” adding that the figure was comparable to that of other groups and denominations.


Nor is this defensiveness surprising: Pope Benedict himself oversaw a critical document insisting on absolute secrecy in dealing with complaints – itself part of the problem.

It was Pope Benedict himself who as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the successor to the Inquisition — who imposed secrecy on sex abuse cases in 2001, making them subject to “papal confidentiality” in a document called “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” or Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments.

Now, however, the problem is widening,with problems now reported from his own home turf of Germany, )with questions about his own record when in Munich, and also that of his brother) and from Austria and Netherlands. There are increasingly urgent calls from senior clergy for deeper investigations than ever before.

“An immense tragedy is becoming apparent,” said Father Stefan Dartmann, head of the Jesuit order in Germany.

How he responds to that tragedy could be the defining moment of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. The pastoral letter he is due to issue to the faithful in Ireland on the sex abuse crisis will be closely scrutinised for evidence that the Pontiff can confront the scale of the crisis.

“Sexual abuses of minors by representatives of the clergy are criminal acts, shameful, inadmissible mortal sins, ignoble actions, among the darkest of the Church,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Council for Christian Unity, said this week. “There needs to be a serious house cleaning in our Church. The Pope is not just going to stand by and watch.”

We shall see – the world is waiting.

(Full report from Times Online)

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