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Tuesday, March 23, 2010  

Sinners and Criminals

It should have shocked no one to find out that a case of negligent handling of an abusive priest has surfaced in Pope Benedict's own former archdiocese. Despite heroic attempts by the hierarchy and their intellectual allies to paint the abuse crisis as a media conspiracy, and American problem, a homosexuality problem, a fluke of immoral seminary environments, or even the consequence of theological liberalism, it has always been international in scope and ancient in duration.

The fact that the Munich archdiocese moved a dangerous priest to a new parish despite past abuse and a strong warning from a therapist has, however, refocused attention on how Benedict and the Vatican have handled a crisis that is hammering the Catholic Church in more and more countries. John Allen, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, recounts the history with a lot of worthwhile facts and an undeniably exculpatory slant. He minimizes the charges against then-Ratzinger by pointing out that he was not practiced in administration and was always off in Rome doing important things rather than supervising his diocese. The "if only the czar had known!" defense is popular and not totally irrelevant in the sense that no one in charge of a big organization can know everything that's going on. But Catholic polity invests bishops with a whole lot of power and discretion, which must be matched with responsibility.

Where Allen does better and more useful work is in tracing the evolution of Benedict's thinking on priestly abuse. Not long ago, Ratzinger held to the conspiracy theory of the abuse crisis--that enemies of the church were exaggerating abuses. As he concentrated authority for handling abuse claims in his own Congregation (in a move that has been plausibly, if polemically, described as a "cover up"), his attitude changed towards one of much more vigorous reaction to abuse. As Pope, he has addressed the scandal more straightforwardly than his predecessor.

All the same, these developments do not quite address the more disheartening aspects of the abuse crisis. Allen credits Benedict with apologizing, but that's not the right word. He expresses regret, much as one would at the death of a friend's parent. He's saying, "I'm sorry a priest did this to you and I will do my best to make sure priests don't do this sort of thing to other people," which is fine. He's emphatically not saying "We were wrong to protect Marcial Maciel, we were wrong to slander his accusers (and many others), we were negligent and defensive and dismissive in our role as bishops of the Church."

There is, moreover, no indication that Benedict has come to truly see pastoral abuse as a crime rather than a moral failing. Improving canonical procedures for removing pedophile priests is not the same thing as pledging to cooperate with the enforcement of civil laws on child abuse. Having sex with a married woman is a sin; having sex with a child is a sin and also a crime. Conspiring to hush up victims and hide their victimizers is a crime.

Allen sums this distinction up well:

From the beginning, the "sex abuse crisis" has actually been an interlocking set of two problems: the abuse committed by some priests, and the administrative failures of some bishops who should have known better to deal with the problem. In general, the impact of Benedict's "conversion" has been felt mostly on that first level -- the determination to punish abusers, to adopt stringent policies governing future cases, to reach out to victims and to apologize for the suffering they've endured. So far, Benedict has not adopted any new accountability mechanisms for bishops. Aside from a few instances such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, few bishops have been asked, or instructed, to resign. As long as the perception is that the Catholic church has fixed its priests' problem but not its bishops' problem, many people will see that as a job half done.

The failure of Benedict and his allies to think more deeply about why and how this crisis has happened will, I suspect, prove a costly one. Someone like Maciel, whose reprobation was nearly total, was nurtured and protected all along by a rotten latticework of papal indulgence, political enthusiasm, and ordinary media hatchet work. The situation in Boston and in other places reeked of misconduct that went far beyond personally corrupt priests and inattentive or old-fashioned bishops. Unless an institution examines its culture--brutally, and without shallow moralism--it is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:14 AM
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