Q:Should Pope Benedict XVI be held responsible for the escalating scandals over clerical sexual abuse in Europe? Should he be investigated for cases of abuse that occurred under his watch as archbishop of Munich or as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer? Should the pope resign?
The sexual abuse of children is a crime; in Wisconsin, where as many as 200 deaf boys may have been sexually abused by Father Murphy at St. Johns’ School for the Deaf in St. Francis, clergy are now among those legally mandated to report child sexual abuse to authorities. The failure of clergy to report child sexual abuse in Wisconsin is now against the law. Unfortunately, this law was only adopted nearly a decade after the alleged abuse by Father Murphy.
From Wisconsin to Ireland to Rome, and everywhere in between, the Catholic church must not only be held morally accountable for the crimes of sexual assault by priests against children, it must be held legally accountable. Until Catholic priests are everywhere held legally accountable for the crimes of sexual abuse they commit, and Catholic authorities are held legally responsible for the crimes they cover-up, the abuse will not stop.
A fundamental question that often gets overlooked in the horrible pattern of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is who is the church? Are children part of the church, and the beloved of God, and their safety the condition for being able to say the church is holy? Or is it only the church hierarchy that is the church, and the protection of the hierarchy the most important issue? Are children part of the church or not?
The answer from this current Pope, Benedict XVI, is plainly that only the church hierarchy is the church. Over many decades, from his time as Bishop in Munich to his term as head of the church office charged with investigating sexual misconduct by priests,the answer from this man is consistently that the hierarchy is the church.
When the alleged abuse by Father Murphy became known to Catholic officials in WI, they did not pick up the phone and call the police. Instead, in 1996 Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee sent two letters to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. From 1981 until his election as Pope in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was the head of this investigative office, formerly called the Holy Office, and before that, the Inquisition. The role of the office is not only to defend and reaffirm the Catholic doctrine, but also to investigate accusations of sexual abuse by priests.
As is now known, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to act promptly on the alleged abuse at St. John’s School for the deaf, and, when a secret investigation started eight months later, Cardinal Ratzinger stopped it after Father Murphy wrote him pleading that he had already repented, was in poor health, and in any event, the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations.
Cardinal Ratzinger may have not have properly investigated the sexual assault of children by Priests while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but he was certainly vigorous in his investigation of the Latin American Liberation Theologians. During Ratzinger’s time in office, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, for example, was suspended, while other Liberation Theologians were censured.
What was Leonardo Boff’s crime that he, along with other Liberation Theologians such as Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote A Theology of Liberation (1971), Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay, were perceived as a threat to church doctrine? Boff wrote about the misery and marginalization of the poor, and was (and continues to be) sharply critical of the church hierarchy that he sees as “fundamentalist” and overly secretive. Boff has always claimed to find much of the justification for his work in Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), a document from Vatican II. One of the key portions of Lumen Gentium is its second chapter, with its declaration that the Church is “the People of God”, and pointedly, not only the hierarchy of the church.
There are really two different views of the church competing here, two different ecclesiologies. One is the Vatican II view of the church as the people of God, an invitation to openness and accountability of all in the church to one another. The other is the traditional view, held by Pope Benedict, that the church’s authority (and its holiness) are vested in the church hierarchy and that hierarchy must be protected at all costs, even at the expense of the health and safety of its children.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter to U.S. Bishops that reportedly dealt with the confidentiality of internal Church investigations into accusations made against priests of certain crimes, including sexual abuse. This letter was cited as evidence of legal obstruction in a Texas case of priestly child sexual abuse.
When abuse cases from the U.S. reached a flood tide, the Pope Benedict said that he was “ashamed” of the sexual abuse scandal, adding, “It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general, for me personally, that this could happen.” [NYT, 3/26/10, p. A10]
It is astonishing and almost beyond comprehension that the suffering of the abused children does not make it into the Pope’s statement about being ashamed. It’s not about the church, Pope Benedict, and it’s certainly not about you, or only to the extent that you and everyone in the Catholic church hierarchy who covers up the sexual abuse of children is committing a crime and should be investigated for that, and, if found guilty, be held legally as well as morally accountable.
The Catholic Church is in deep crisis because it cannot seem to recognize its own children as part of the People of God. God help those children, as their church hierarchy seems not even to see them as part of the church.