My colleague and friend Austen Ivereigh has an important post below about the sexual abuse crisis and the way Pope Benedict XVI is now involved in addressing it. The situation in Germany itself, and in Regensberg particularly, has raised the possibility that some enterprising journalist will be searching the files in Munich, where Ratzinger was briefly archbishop, to see how he dealt with any cases of abuse. He quotes a Reuters article that included the now requisite question about leadership amidst a scandal: what did he know and when did he know it?
I would submit that this is the wrong question. If anything is clear by now, it is clear that the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was not the product of a bad decision here or lax oversight there. The sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up of that abuse were the twin products of a clerical culture that remains largely in place and of a continuing fear that any honest discussion about sexual matters will expose a crisis of belief. The dirty secret is that many bishops are too isolated to know it, and others are too afraid to admit it, but many of the people in the pews don’t believe what the Church teaches about sexual morality any more.
As to the clerical culture, the need for transparency and accountability to be introduced into the system remains the principal priority for the Church is she is to re-establish her hierarchy in the minds and hearts of the faithful. Here in the U.S., for all of its problems, the Dallas Charter was a huge step forward, and other countries should consider adopting it in a form modified to their unique ecclesiastical arrangements. That said, not all dioceses are in compliance with the Charter and if it is to have teeth, the Pope should demand the resignation of any bishop who fails to comply with its provisions.
The Pope also needs to make clear that he will not tolerate any obfuscation of responsibility by hierarchs. The recent spate of resignations by bishops in Ireland was a good start. Benedict should demand the resignation of any bishop who helped cover-up the sexual abuse of minors. He must know by now that the crisis started with sexual abuse the way Watergate started with a burglary: It is the cover-up that followed that has become the scandal now. And while it is undoubtedly true that in the 70s and 80s different beliefs were held, not only by churchmen but by psychiatrists and doctors about the possibility of reforming a pedophile, that truth is now irrelevant. Both at the time of Napoleon’s rise and after World War II, Rome forced the resignation of many bishops in France for reasons no more or less forceful than those found in the current situation.
The crisis of belief about the Church’s moral teachings is a more complicated thing to address. During the height of the sexual abuse crisis in America, in 2002, I wrote the following: "[T]he church cannot preach sexual ethics in a vacuum; one reason its message has failed so utterly is because American Catholicism has reduced religion to morality and specifically to sexual morality. Unfortunately, because the liberalism of the public sphere requires that we set our dogmatic claims aside, the Church's cultural position invites just such a reduction. In an article in the Catholic quarterly Communio, theologian Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete commented: "It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum." Few would argue that the Church's moral teachings, standing on their own, are persuasive in today's culture. But they were never meant to stand on their own. What is distinctive about Catholicism is not the manner in which its members copulate, but how we pray and to whom. This core sense of wonder at the admittedly large claims of the Catholic faith--that God himself came down from Heaven, was born of a virgin, walked upon the Earth, died, and rose from the dead--and the wonder they must necessarily inspire to those who hold them, are what the Church must reclaim if its credibility is to be restored. Unless a bishop or theologian can trace his views on moral issues to the empty tomb of Easter morning, there is nothing distinctively Christian or Catholic about them." Those words still ring true and you can read the full article here.
No one has been more clear in opposing this reduction of religion to ethics than Pope Benedict. In that sense, he is the perfect man to have at the helm and it would be a crime if his voice were to be silenced because some journalist finds evidence, probably murky all these years later, about his administration of the archdiocese of Munich. The Pope, however, must be pro-active in this regard, in a way that he was not during the meeting with the Irish bishops. He must speak out, and speak from the heart, and speak from the Gospel. What did he know and when did he know it? The sex abuse crisis exists in the culture of the Church, and that culture must change, not just the rules for admission to seminary. The Pope knows that and he has known it for a long time.
Michael Sean Winters