Grace under fire

He didn’t foresee the long-running sex abuse scandal suddenly igniting, but the Pope showed surprising openness in dealing with it
Grace under fire
Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

There is always, in the spiritual and political life of the Roman Catholic Church, a fire smouldering somewhere: minority Christians under persecution here, an abortion initiative in a Catholic country there, rebellious laity, scandalous clergy. So Pope Benedict XVI had no particular reason, on New Year’s Day, to foresee that the long-running clerical child sexual abuse scandal would suddenly burn white-hot, and spread far outside the confines of his Church. But as the penitential season of Lent began in February, hundreds more victims surfaced with their harrowing stories, not only in Ireland and the U.S., the epicentres of the scandal, but across Europe, including Benedict’s native Germany.

This time it was more than the original crimes that angered the faithful and outsiders alike. The focus was increasingly on the cover-up—the swearing of victims to secrecy, the shuffling of pedophile priests to fresh starts (and fresh opportunities) in unsuspecting parishes—and the way that cover-up touched the papacy itself. Questions were raised in the media and among Catholics about Benedict’s role, before he became pope, in determining the Vatican’s treatment of predatory clergy, a response widely condemned as ineffectual at best and criminally negligent at worst. Benedict found himself launched on an annus horribilis that would prove as awful as any experienced by a pope in modern times.

In March, the Pope became caught up in the German part of the scandal. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich in 1980, he had reportedly approved the transfer of confessed pedophile priest Peter Hullermann to therapy. After being treated for only a few days, Hullermann returned to pastoral duties and abused more children. He was finally convicted of sexual abuse in 1986. Benedict’s defenders, who dismissed the Hullermann allegations as an attempt to smear the Pope’s reputation, were left reeling when it emerged in mid-March that Hullermann, now out of jail, was still practising as a priest. (He was immediately suspended from his duties.)

Ratzinger’s failure to defrock Lawrence Murphy, one of the most notorious pedophiles in the U.S. Church, who had molested 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin during the 1960s and ’70s, also drew fire. Ratzinger halted a Church trial in 1996 after Murphy wrote to him to beg for mercy because of his poor health. The cardinal, noting no criminal charges had been laid, acceded. Murphy was allowed to die a priest, and was buried in his vestments.

By summer the Pope was facing calls for his resignation, massive and hostile media attention, and the prospect of a harrowing September visit to Britain. Never the most Catholic-friendly country at the best of times, the homeland of author Christopher Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson, the human rights jurist whose new book sets out the case for prosecuting Benedict for obstruction of justice, promised to be a papal nightmare of bad press, sullen Catholics and angry demonstrators. Michael Higgins, one of the most prominent lay Catholic intellectuals in Canada, was there for the visit. Among the organizers and senior churchmen involved, he says, “determinedly happy faces hid almost universal worry.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Benedict’s Waterloo. Catholic rage, if not outsiders’ condemnation, started to abate, as the faithful recalled that Benedict had done far more than his predecessor, the charismatic John Paul II, to crack down on abusive clergy and, just as important, was much more open about the scale of the problem, even if not to the extent some would wish. And they realized, too, that the cover-up cases now being revealed were, on the whole, old cases, indicating that steps taken by the Church in the 1980s and after—including by Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief disciplinarian under John Paul—had borne fruit.

Benedict, after all, was the Pope who had decried the “filth” that was encrusting his Church and who met with victims time and again. “I think the British tour went well,” Higgins remarks, “because Benedict refused to ignore the issue. He was heartfelt in his sorrow and his disappointment. I think he gets the message—realizes how huge this issue is and how much damage was done—far more than John Paul did.” Early in his papacy, Benedict removed from active ministry the Mexican sexual abuser Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had simply been ignored during the papacy of his good friend John Paul. Higgins calls it “the most egregious example of tolerated corruption in John Paul’s time, and Benedict ended it.”

The Pope too seems to have felt that the storm, at least as it swirled about him personally, was abating in the autumn. Or perhaps, at 83, he’s in a hurry to accomplish his oft-indicated aim of reconciling faith and reason and gaining a greater presence for the Church in the public square. Instead of ducking the headlines, Benedict collaborated on a wide-ranging book with a sympathetic German author, Peter Seewald, in which the Pope asserted, among other matters, that resignation on health grounds was a viable option for popes and—far more controversially—that the need to prevent diseases like AIDS could outweigh the Church’s blanket opposition to condoms.

He gave the startling (for a pope) example of a male prostitute wearing one for a client’s sake. A Vatican spokesman later confirmed that for Benedict, the use of condoms by people infected with HIV, female or male, could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.” Though Benedict emphatically did not alter official Church teaching—still opposed to contraceptive use—his words angered some conservative Catholics. They were welcomed by many others, including clerics and health care workers in Africa, where the AIDS problem is worst—and where Catholicism is booming.

The Christian liturgical year began anew on Nov. 28 with the First Sunday of Advent. Pope Benedict XVI could have left his old, horrible year, on the quiet. But that doesn’t seem to be his style.