Special Report

Handling the Situation

If more U.S. bishops had behaved like Benedict this week, the church sex scandals might not have happened.

By 4.18.08

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Before Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in the United States, many hoped he would address the clergy sexual abuse scandal, but no one could know for certain if he would. The doubters pointed to the fact that he had been invited to make Boston -- epicenter of the 2002 revelations -- a part of the itinerary, and declined. Didn't that imply a lack of awareness of the importance of the issue?

Maybe not.

Midway through this journey, Pope Benedict has addressed the clergy sexual abuse crisis three times with words and a fourth in a way far more powerful than words -- by meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse on the afternoon of April 17.

Benedict was not cajoled into uttering any of his words on the issue. Even in the most informal of settings in which it came up -- the press conference on the plane -- those questions asked of the Pope were preselected. And the first question selected to be answered, posed by veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, concerned this very issue.

I'll come back to what Benedict has said about the abuse scandal in a moment, but first some background on his previous engagement with the issue, which has not made headlines, but is telling.

As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, part of Cardinal Ratzinger's responsibility, especially in the latter years of John Paul's pontificate, was to handle the cases of priests accused of sexual abuse. He referred to his Friday mornings reading these dossiers as his "Friday penance."

In an article published after his election, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times wrote of this troubling part of Ratzinger's job and also of the meetings some members of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board had with him in 2003. Former board chair Anne Burke reported they found a concerned and engaged listener in the Cardinal.

THIS RELUCTANT IMMERSION in these cases led to a strong and poignant moment in 2005, just days before the death of John Paul II, when the traditional Good Friday Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum, written that year by Cardinal Ratzinger, read, during the meditation on the Ninth Station:

Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!

Finally, and to me, very tellingly, in the fall of 2004, Ratzinger re-opened the long-controversial cases charging Legionary of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado with abuse and exploitation of seminarians.

Maciel was disciplined in 2006 and when he died this past January, the Vatican had nothing to say. It is standard procedure for the Pope to issue a statement of condolence when a religious order founder dies. But from Benedict, silence.

This week, the Pope has used his voice to recognize the terrible cost of the sexual abuse crisis in this country: most of all to victims, but also to the entire Church.

On the plane, in answer to Allen's question, Benedict used the word "shame" in relation to the scandal, then briefly outlined the areas in which the Church should act: juridically, pastorally, and in relation to seminary screening and formation.

The emphasis on victims came through very clearly in Wednesday's speech to the U.S. bishops, when Benedict said that it was their "God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged."

JUST WORDS? Not at all, if you consider the priorities of various dioceses in the past. Showing compassion and care to victims has not always topped the list, which is exactly the reason we are where we are. Benedict reminded the bishops not only that this was most important, but that it was what God -- you know, God -- expected of them.

In the earlier days of these scandals, we were reassured that those in charge were trying to respond to the concerns of the faithful on this score, and that they were listening to us. Frankly, I never really cared if they were listening to me. I just thought they should try listening to Christ.

Speaking of Christ, he came up, too. Benedict told the bishops that their lives should be Christ-centered and prayerful, devoted to the virtues and holiness.

In saying this, Benedict isn't tossing out self-help platitudes or suggesting magic formulas that make suffering and complexity disappear. Rather, he's saying that in addition to other concrete efforts, Christ-centered bishops should foster holiness in priests, and when sins are committed, they tend to victims first. First. First.

Thursday, during his homily at Mass at Nationals Park, he brought the subject up to those gathered and, by extension, to Catholics across the country. First, once again, were victims. And only after that did he ask them to "love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do."

And finally, Thursday afternoon, in a surprise move, Benedict met with five victims who were escorted to their meeting by Sean Cardinal O'Malley of Boston.

NO, BENEDICT DIDN'T take anyone publicly to the woodshed. He didn't lay out any canonical or structural issues. Those things are important, but they are also not the stuff of homilies and press conferences.

Here in the U.S., Benedict spoke as a pastor, laying it out plainly before all of us, including the bishops, not only by his words but by his actions.

Time after time, we hear that in the beginning, victims of abuse asked something simple of bishops: Meet with us. Listen to our stories. Help us.

How many bishops were asked to do this, how many times? And how often did they refuse?

This week, one bishop said "Yes."

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