The Scandal has erupted again, this time in Europe, and the media is of course having a feeding frenzy. This is the “perfect storm” of stories for them: scandalous behavior by religious people, including sexual misbehavior, reaching possibly to the highest levels of the Church. They are like kids at Christmas.
Understandably, many Catholics are angry at the media for their attacks. The media clearly has an anti-Church agenda, and it is frustrating to many faithful Catholics to see our Holy Father maligned in such a way. But the media is not the problem. I remember when the media first broke the story about Fr. Maciel in the late 1990′s and about abuse in Boston in 2002, I quickly blamed the media. But since then I have realized that the media did not create these problems, they just exploit them. The real problem is the sins of members of the Church, not the media. To complain about the media, in my opinion, is like a kid who complains when he is called in on a summer day because it is now dark. For the media to attack the Church at every possible opportunity is a force of (fallen) nature: we cannot expect anything different.
The problem, instead, has been self-inflicted: going back at least to the 1950′s (and probably before that), there has been widespread abuse by clerics and cover-ups by bishops. To say that the rate of abuse is no worse than society as a whole is no defense, either: we are the Body of Christ, our standards are not to be “no worse than the world”, our standard is Christ, who is perfect. Even one case of abuse and cover-up is a scandal which cries out to heaven for justice. But it has been far more than one case, as it is clear that the sexual problems which have afflicted society as a whole have run rampant throughout the Church as well.
And the real scandal, I believe, is the response of the hierarchy over the years. There are three possible responses that a bishop could make to a case of sexual abuse by one of his clerics:
1) Effectively ignore the problem, cover it up, and transfer the priest to another location where he can abuse again.
2) Keep the problem quiet, send the priest to treatment and then move the priest to somewhere he cannot abuse again.
3) Aggressively handle the situation by removing the priest from the ministry and doing anything possible to bring about reparation and healing to the victim(s).
Obviously, the first possibility is sinful and scandalous, the second not ideal but not necessarily sinful, and the third the ideal. But unfortunately, until earlier this decade, the best we could hope for from our bishops would have been the 2nd response, and many bishops seemed to be engaged in the tactics of response (1). There is no evidence that any bishop was handling these cases aggressively and with a mind to the healing of the victims before this decade.
Because of this, it would be naïve to think that anyone who has been a bishop for any length of time from the 1950′s until this decade would not have cases in their past in which their response would be seen as inadequate at best. So it should not be a surprise that a pope who had previously been a bishop of a large diocese and a long-time Vatican official which handled some of these cases would have some cases in his past. And from what we know so far, it appears that although then-archbishop and Cardinal Ratzinger did not handle the cases aggressively by today’s standards, he also was not engaged in shuffling abusive priests to situations in which they could abuse again.
In other words, in defending the Pope against the attacks he is undergoing, let us not pretend he was a crusader against priestly abuse either. Until this decade, he was not. Because of the lack of response by Church officials over the decades to the abuse crisis, there is a wide open hole for enemies of the Church to exploit. But the irony here is that Cardinal Ratzinger eventually was one of the first Vatican officials to see the scope of the problem and work to deal with it decisively, both as head of the CDF and as Pope, as John Allen’s excellent article shows. So those calling for his head do not seem to have the health of the Church or the protection of the innocent in mind, as he is the best friend of abuse victims the Church has today.
In many ways, the Pope has had all the sins of the past decades placed on his shoulders. As the Pope, he is truly where the “buck stops” and therefore all the sins of bishops and priests for the past 60 years are his responsibility. As Catholics, we must pray fervently for our Holy Father this Holy Week that the attacks against him and his sufferings might be used in a way to bring healing and salvation to all those victims of abuse over the years, as well as to those who would attack him today.