Putting the case for Pope Benedict XV1

Op-Ed Contributor in New York Times

A Papal Conversion

Published: March 27, 2010


IN light of recent revelations, Pope Benedict XVI now seems to symbolize
the tremendous failure by the Catholic Church to crack down on the sexual
abuse of children. Both the pope’s brief stint as a bishop in Germany 30
years ago and his quarter-century as a top Vatican official are being
scoured for records of abusive priests whom he failed to stop, and each
case seems to strengthen the indictment.

For example, considerable skepticism surrounds the Vatican’s insistence
that in 1980 the pope, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, was
unaware of a decision to transfer a known pedophile priest to his diocese
and give him duties in a parish. In some ways, the question of what he knew
at the time is almost secondary, since it happened on his watch and
ultimately he has to bear the responsibility. However, all the criticism is
obscuring something equally important: For anyone who knows the Vatican’s
history on this issue, Benedict XVI isn’t just part of the problem. He’s
also a major chapter in the solution.

To understand that, it’s necessary to wind the clock back a decade. Before
then, no Vatican office had clear responsibility for cases of priests
accused of sexual abuse, which instead were usually handled — and often
ignored — at the diocesan level. In 2001, however, Pope John Paul II
assigned responsibility to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
the Vatican’s all-important doctrinal office, which was headed by Joseph
Ratzinger, then a cardinal.

As a result, bishops were required to send their case files to Cardinal
Ratzinger’s office. By all accounts, he studied them with care, making him
one of the few churchmen anywhere in the world to have read the
documentation on virtually every Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse.
The experience gave him a familiarity with the pervasiveness of the problem
that virtually no other figure in the Catholic Church can claim. And driven
by that encounter with what he would later refer to as “filth” in the
church, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have undergone a transformation. From
that point forward, he and his staff were determined to get something done.

One crucial issue Cardinal Ratzinger had to resolve was how to handle the
church’s internal disciplinary procedures for abusive priests. Early on,
reformers worried that Rome would insist on full trials in church courts
before a priest could be removed from ministry or defrocked. Those trials
were widely seen as slow, cumbersome and uncertain, yet many in the Vatican
thought they were needed to protect the due process rights of the accused.

In the end, Cardinal Ratzinger and his team approved direct administrative
action in roughly 60 percent of the cases. Having sorted through the
evidence, they concluded that in most cases swift action was more important
than preserving the church’s legal formalities.

Among Vatican insiders, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
became the primary force pushing for a tough response to the crisis. Other
departments sometimes regarded the “zero tolerance” policy as an
over-reaction, not to mention a distortion of the church’s centuries-long
legal tradition, in which punishments are supposed to fit the crime, and in
which bishops and other superiors have great leeway in meting out

After being elected pope, Benedict made the abuse cases a priority. One of
his first acts was to discipline two high-profile clerics against whom sex
abuse allegations had been hanging around for decades, but had previously
been protected at the highest levels.

He is also the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did
in the United States and Australia in 2008. He spoke openly about the
crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States. And he
became the first pope to devote an entire document to the sex-abuse crisis,
his pastoral letter to Ireland.

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside
world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the
problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs
in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but
more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation
and tried to steer a new course.

Be that as it may, Benedict now faces a difficult situation inside the
church. From the beginning, the sexual abuse crisis has been composed of
two interlocking but distinct scandals: the priests who abused, and the
bishops who failed to clean it up. The impact of Benedict’s post-2001
conversion has been felt mostly at that first level, and he hasn’t done
nearly as much to enforce new accountability measures for bishops.

That, in turn, is what makes revelations about his past so potentially
explosive. Can Benedict credibly ride herd on other bishops if his own
record, at least before 2001, is no better? The church’s legitimacy rests
in large part on that question.

Yet to paint Benedict XVI as uniquely villainous doesn’t do justice to his
record. The pope may still have much ground to cover, but he deserves
credit for how far he’s come.

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