The sins of the Fathers are crimes

Q:Should Pope Benedict XVI be held responsible for the escalating scandals over clerical sexual abuse in Europe? Should he be … Continued

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.

  • thebump

    Once again the Post treats us to Miss Thistlethwaite’s breathtaking ignorance.She is last person on earth who should be lecturing the Holy Father about the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as an expert theologian. Her main complaint seems to be that he does not embrace all of her hippie enthusiasms.Miss Thistlethwaite really is an insufferable ignoramus whose inane opinions are of interest to no one.

  • sharon7


  • Amos2


  • blackjack46

    If Susan’s facts are wrong, how accurate can her opinions be?

  • saintrebe

    Having practiced Catholicism as a teen I had no experience whatever with priest misbehavior. The evidence of some of them doing so around the world however, is so enlightening that I have to believe there are/were some that did abuse both God’s word and the rule of human decency. To deny this with impunity is tantamount to excusing them. There are bad people in all walks of live. Let’s accept that and go on trying to our best to call them to task for that.

  • Listening2

    The abuse of children by a small percentage of Catholic priests is ugly and shameful, and in the future, Catholics all should ensure that those who commit such acts are held criminally responsible. Many, can’t seem to understand the Church’s position on abuse. Decades ago, when much of this abuse happened, child abuse was treated very differently by many segments of society, the family, educators, government entities and legal authorities. It has only been in the last decade that society has brought about changes in the way child abuse is viewed and handled by many. Of course it should be reported by authorities and those responsible should be held accountable and imprisoned. However, I would like to remind people that one of the precepts of christianity is forgiveness. Catholocism has always stressed forgiveness and absolution of sins. I am not saying that forgiveness should preempt accountability for a criminal act. What I am saying is that when bishops and cardinals knew of child abuse by a priest, some of them honestly thought decades ago that if one asked for forgiveness and was given absolution and they promised not to do this again, they thought it ended it. Unfortunately, as we all know now, pedophiles do it over and over again given the chance. I’m not trying to excuse the hierarchy of the church, only to understand this terrible situation. What they forgot was that the Church does not need protection, it as survived and will continue to survive until the end of time. I say that there is a frenzy out there of individuals who seem to have a real hatred for the Church and given any reason, seem to relish this feeding frenzy.

  • jpk1

    Ratzinger still doesn’t get it.

  • ruralAZ

    In my field, medicine, our traditional oath starts with “primum non nocere”- first do no harm.Appears to me that “first do no harm” ought to be a basic requirement for the priesthood as well. A priest who does harm cannot be entrusted with a congregation.Note well – in medicine, the harm is not specified. It means that we physicians are not to use the powers society has entrusted us with to harm others.That said, I would like to hear the Pope apologize for his abusive priests, and then have him immediately raise the whole dialogue to a higher level. It is time to make it a church policy to defrock any priest anywhere in the world who systematically uses his job as a way to harm any of his parishioners. And then a finer point: Harm does not have to be sexual abuse. The Pope can leave harm as a generic idea open to definition thereby allowing the church to flex its muscle as future times may require.

  • owlafaye

    In 300 years the Roman Catholic Church will refer to these times as one in which the church was falsely and malignantly attacked by atheists, non-believers, government and Satanic enemies of Christianity. “Against a massive effort to discredit the piety and chasteness of the clergy with accusations of heinous crimes, the church and her followers fought a protracted battle against this evil… eventually triumphing in the name of Jesus and to the greater glory of the mother church.”I assure you that this will come to pass…this has always been the strategy of the criminal enterprise called Catholicism.May the light of knowledge shine on your path,

  • SFCatholic

    Susan, your anti-Catholic bias shows through in your utter ignorance of the actual facts here. 1) The Murphy abuse instances happened in the 1970s, and the then archbishop of Milwaukee, William Cousins, now deceased, is the one you should direct your hysteria at. 2) In the mid-1990s, Abp. Weakland referred the matter to CDF under Crimens, and a canonical trial was begun. The then Card. Ratzinger, in his capacity as Prefect, had no jurisdiction to laicize or otherwise discipline Murphy, until the canonical trial was concluded–and in fact, he recommended that the canonical trial proceed swiftly. Weakland was in no way prevented either de jure or de facto from contacting the police about Murphy, but he did not. Throw some of your histrionics his way, if you like. But I doubt you will, because Weakland is your kind of Catholic–which is to say, disobedient to the magisterium. Murphy’s canonical trial was suspended because of his terminal medical condition, and he in fact died only months thereafter. This is the same humane treatment you would be hysterically calling for against an al-Queda terrorist, I’m very sure.

  • blackjack46

    Oh boy! here we go again. The priest was defrocked in 1966. The statute of limitations was up. What cover up. Murphy did this in secret. His case is hardly comparable to the liberation theologians who were shouting their case from the rooftops.Susan, your case and line of argument is illogical and makes connections and assumptions which are patently false.Learn to think before you write.

  • awruff

    Susan, as a fellow theology prof I thank you for addressing this very important issue. I think there are problems with Pope Benedict’s vision of Church. His handling of sex abuse is very mixed, with some good openness, but also too much blaming other people and not facing charges. On one point, though, I think you’re off base. If you read Benedict’s extensive writings on ecclesiology it is clear that he believes all the baptized People of God are the church. How he carries this out is another thing, of course. But I’d urge you to study all his writings before making such a blanket claim.

  • phlegyas

    In all of this church defenders are constantly referring to “past” abuse of children.