Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI called sexual abuse “truly terrifying.” In his frank comments to reporters aboard the plane en route to Portugal, he seemed to rebut curial officials who have sought to portray the crisis as somehow generated from the outside. "The greatest persecution of the church comes not from enemies on the outside, but is born from sin inside the church," Benedict said. "The church thus has a profound need to relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness, but also the necessity of justice," the pope said. "Forgiveness does not take the place of justice.”
John L. Allen, Jr., NCR's Rome correspondent, in that same Times story, agrees that the pope is responding to curial officials who sought to deflect attention away from the true nature of the crisis. That would include such people as Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's former Secretary of State and current dean of the College of Cardinals, who called the reports of abuse “petty gossip.” (That this happened during the Easter Vigil Mass made his comments all the more shocking.) Also included would be Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the powerful Columbian prelate who served as prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy. In 2001, the cardinal wrote that he “rejoiced” when he discovered that a French bishop had sheltered an abusive priests from authorities. “I congratulate you on not having reported a priest to the civil authorities," Castrillon-Hoyos wrote to Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux (of all places). "You have done well, and I rejoice at having an associate in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all the others bishops of the world, will have chosen prison rather than speaking out against his priest-son." (This is probably the worst use of the beautiful word “rejoice” imaginable. "I rejoiced when they said to me, 'Let us go to the House of the Lord,'" says Psalm 122. Who "rejoices" over hiding a sex crime?) Castrillon Hoyos is also the subject of a devastating article in the London Tablet, which details his rise to power and his utter intransigence in the face of the abuse crisis.
Sexual abuse is “truly terrifying.” The other terrifying thing is this: while sexual abuse may not be more prevalent in the church than in any other organization that has children in its care, the abuse was more readily hidden by those in power. The past few weeks have brought to light stories that, frankly, have sickened me, and have called into question my former belief that the church is no more likely to shelter abusers than any other institutions. There was, for example, the disgusting story of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who not only abused children, but also fathered children out of wedlock, and funneled money to Vatican officials. Despite repeated charges by credible sources, and even efforts by the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to address the charges, Maciel had been long protected against abuse claims by Pope John Paul II. Now even the Vatican, in their directive for the overhaul of the Legion, has declared his life "devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment."
Story after story of not simply abusive priests, but of mendacious bishops, intransigent superiors of religious orders and venal curial officials, seem to pour out daily. Of course, the velocity of these reports is the result of the media’s knowing a good story when they see one, perhaps even some lingering anti-Catholicism. On the other hand, they’re not making this stuff up.
And here is what concerns me now. Despite the fact that Scout masters, school teachers, youth minister and the like--not to mention ministers, rabbis and imams--have all been connected with sexual abuse, the institutions of which they are members simply have not demonstrated (so far) the obtuseness, stonewalling, defensiveness, instransigence and sinfulness that the Catholic church has on this matter. The institution of the church--and here I mean the hierarchy--particularly in its historic desire to shield itself from any and all critique by "outsiders," and its desire to avoid "scandal" made the problem of sexual abuse, which is probably just as rampant in other groups, infinitely worse.
How did we get to this point? How did we find ourselves with some leaders who are not only blind but almost willfully so? (The old term "invincible ignorance" comes to mind.) Part of it is the lust for power. Our blunt editorial this week talks about the "black cloud of flattery" that envelopes the curia, the last Renaissance court. Part of it is pride. One of the less-noted aspects of this saga is how shocked Vatican officials are when anyone has the temerity to contradict them, or even to question them. (Benedict, who many credit with taking a hard line with abusers and with Maciel, while at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was not immune to this. See this video of his slapping a reporter who asked him about Maciel.) It’s not hard to extrapolate this into a disregard for victims and their families. That is, if a bishop won't speak to the police or to the media, why would he speak to a victim or a parent?
But finally it comes down to sinfulness, as Benedict rightly admitted yesterday. And not just the sin of abuse but the sin of ignoring it. There are "sins of omission" as well as "sins of commission." That is, sexual abuse is not “petty,” nor are reports of it “gossip.” And the last thing that one should do at the hiding of an abusive priest is “rejoice.” Turning away from sexual abuse, and rejoicing over the hiding of a priest are sinful, or at least close enough. Were someone to enter a confessional and confess that he thought that a murder was “petty” it would be a serious indication of his inability to understand right and wrong. Were someone to say that he “rejoiced” over the murder of someone I would think him immoral.
Sexual abuse is “truly terrifying.” So is the presence of "sin inside the church."