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Child Abuse and the Papacy

 Child Abuse and the Papacy                 Gerry OShea

The recent 190-page report commissioned by the Munich archdiocese found Emeritus Pope Benedict complicit in covering up cases of child abuse where predator priests were allowed to continue in pastoral work after their corrupt actions were known.

 This papal debacle brings to mind the famous Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the Emperor whose arrogance was revealed when he walked naked in a parade.

The tale began when two swindlers, posing as weavers, promised to supply the Emperor with magnificent clothes which, however, would only be visible to those subjects who were wise and perceptive. They set up looms and finally announced that the emperor’s suit was ready.

 The “tailors” mime that they are dressing him in gorgeous attire and he struts off proudly to lead a big parade. His subjects cheer him on because to do otherwise would mark them as stupid, but a child, shocked at the sight of the naked leader, cries out in amazement that “the Emperor has no clothes.”

Former Pope Benedict was a strict captain of the church. He was loyal to the traditional understanding of controversial moral issues, and he was especially unbending when faced with requests for tolerance and respect for the gay lifestyle and for divorced Catholics because he deemed them to be engaging in behavior that is “essentially evil.”

 Commentators note the major difference between the current pope outreaching to people struggling on the periphery of society, while Benedict would be happier with a smaller, purer church where age-old doctrines are enjoined on all members. For him, what was considered objectively wrong in past centuries cannot be changed today.

Catholic teaching on divorce provides a good example. Traditional thinkers like Benedict preach that a divorced person in a second relationship is living in sin and thus is barred from receiving communion. One man, one woman, one time is the age-old Catholic mantra.

Francis has tried to move the church to a more compassionate and magnanimous response to members whose marriages have broken down and who have found love and companionship in a new relationship. Barring divorcees from the altar rails excludes them from the grace of the sacrament and often alienates them from the Christian community.

The damning report by German investigators concluded that then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, knew of at least four child-abusing priests and failed to protect the children in his care from these men. The investigating lawyers dismissed as not credible Benedict’s claim that he was unaware of these horrible abuses.

People are also amazed that in a nearly 72-page submission to the commission the former pope claimed that a troubled priest who masturbated in front of pre-pubescent girls did not “act improperly” because he didn’t engage in sexual touching with the young women.

This report confirms the shameful conclusions of similar investigations elsewhere, most recently in New Zealand, that the first response of church dignitaries to abuse revelations always focuses on protecting the institution and its priests with the safety of children featuring only as a distant second consideration.

During Benedict’s papacy two shocking reports were made public in Ireland. The Ryan report in May 2009 revealed the disreputable treatment of children in Irish orphanages, reformatories and industrial schools, and, in November of the same year, the Murphy report dealt in disturbing detail with the widespread sexual exploitation of minors in the archdiocese of Dublin.

In 2010, Pope Benedict wrote to the people of Ireland, sharing their “dismay and sense of betrayal on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way that the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.”

Backed by the authority of the papal tiara, he excoriated the Irish bishops, reminding them that in 2006 he gave instructions to establish the truth about all allegations and take steps to ensure that the abuse of minors would never again be tolerated.

 No doubt, he was disappointed with the impact of the two shocking reports and was clear in pointing the deserved finger of blame, but, in the light of the recent Munich report, his condemnatory statements sound very hollow. Reminds us of the sardonic expression – talk louder, your actions are shouting you down!

Benedict’s predecessor in the papacy, the charismatic John Paul 11, now canonized, faces similarly credible accusations, heightening a sense of red-hot anger among Catholics at ecclesiastical structures and priorities that failed repeatedly to protect the most vulnerable members of the church. Immense harm has been done and it is very difficult to see how the church will recover its dignity and credibility.

In 2020, instructed by Francis, the Vatican published a 450-page report on how Theodore McCarrick ended up with a cardinal’s hat, despite repeated reports of his sexual abuse of boys and young men. Prior to his appointment as cardinal in Washington, a prized role for ambitious clerics, Pope John Paul 11 received a letter from Cardinal John O’Connor of New York strongly recommending against any promotion for McCarrick.

He wrote in his six-page missive that he had investigated credible allegations of abuse against McCarrick, including that he had induced several young adult seminarians to share a bed with him. O’Connor complained that some of these men suffered severe psychological harm as a result. He concluded with very blunt language: “I would have to recommend very strongly against his promotion, particularly to a Cardinatial See.”

John Paul did have these accusations investigated but deemed the findings inconclusive. His strong personal relationship with McCarrick weighed heavily with him and he gave him the benefit of the doubt.

 James Grein, who was abused for years by McCarrick, demanded a meeting with Pope John Paul. This was arranged, ironically by McCarrick, and he told the pope that McCarrick had abused him since he was eleven years old. John Paul seemed unimpressed by this serious contention.

 Neither this face-to-face allegation by Grein or O’Connor’s letter deterred John Paul from promoting him to the top Washington job and awarding him the prized cardinal’s hat.

The Vatican investigation into the scandal concluded that John Paul  knew and overlooked the multiple claims of abuse. Two decades later McCarrick was dismissed and laicized in disgrace by Francis, and he is now supposedly doing penance for his sexual transgressions.

 The sainted pope’s credibility has suffered greatly even among his devoted followers. Should a man who, despite clear and compelling evidence, fails to deal maturely with a child predator functioning in the highest ranks of the church, be taken seriously in other moral pronouncements?

Benedict is working on a reply to the Munich document. There is some sympathy for a 94-year old man having to account for his behavior forty years ago. Indeed, his situation elicits real human pathos. But what about the children who were damaged because of his inaction. How are they doing?

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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