A Pastoral Touch

Pope Benedict

As calls increase for the the Pope to resign over his alleged role in not dealing with pedophiles as the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and subsequently head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, I was wondering if it has any historical precedent.  To my surprise, it isn’t that hard to do and it has happened in the past according to the BBC.

Of course it is bigger than just the current Pope, as the The Times wonders how much of a roll that Pope John Paul II had in the cover-up

The most serious claims related to Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, an Austrian friend of John Paul’s who abused an estimated 2,000 boys over decades but never faced any sanction from Rome.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Groer’s successor, criticized the handling of that scandal and other abuse cases last week after holding a special service in St Stephen’s cathedral, Vienna, entitled “Admitting our guilt”.

Schönborn condemned the “sinful structures” within the church and the patterns of “silencing” victims and “looking away”.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who became Pope Benedict — had tried to investigate the abuses as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, according to Schönborn. But his efforts had been blocked by “the Vatican”, an apparent reference to John Paul.

Asked by The Sunday Times whether John Paul’s role in the cover-up of abuse should be investigated, Schönborn said: “I have known Pope Benedict personally during 37 years of amiable acquaintance and I can say with certainty that … he made entirely clear efforts not to cover things up but to tackle and investigate them. This was not always met with approval in the Vatican.”

The Groer affair became public in 1995 when former pupils of an elite Catholic school accused him of sexual abuse.

It get’s uglier

John Paul also faced criticism last week from Poland for protecting Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who was accused of abusing trainee priests. Letters detailing the charges were sent to John Paul’s office and to Ratzinger in 2000 but were ignored. Paetz resigned in 2002 when the allegations became public.

Stanislaw Obirek, a Polish theologian and a former Jesuit priest, said: “I believe John Paul is the key person responsible for the cover-up of abuse cases because most of it occurred during his papacy. How can someone who is to blame for this be beatified?”

In America critics pointed out that although Benedict has borne the brunt of criticism over ignoring the scandal of Father Lawrence Murphy, accused of molesting 200 deaf boys at a special school in Wisconsin, Ratzinger had acted on the authority of John Paul.

Another beneficiary of John Paul’s discreet approach was Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest known as Father Maciel, who founded a conservative religious order. He was accused by former members of abuse in 1998. John Paul blessed Maciel in the Vatican in late 2004, at a time when Ratzinger was investigating him. A year after Ratzinger became pope, the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead “a reserved life of prayer and penance”, effectively removing him from power.

John Paul was also accused of ignoring controversy over John Magee, a former private secretary to three popes including the Polish pontiff, who named him Bishop of Cloyne in 1987. Late last month Magee was forced to resign after an independent report found that his diocese in Ireland had put children at risk.

In the Vatican the spiraling allegations have prompted a siege-like mentality. Father Federico Lombardi, Benedict’s spokesman, declined to comment on John Paul’s handling of abuse cases. “We’re busy with Easter celebrations, let’s focus on the homilies,” he said.

The Polish cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul’s private secretary for four decades, rejected as “unfair and misleading” any attempt to distinguish between the approaches of the two popes to abuse cases. “Benedict is strongly committed to clearing things up, like a father,” Dziwisz told La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper.

In Europe there are signs of the faithful turning their backs on the church in large numbers. In Austria alone more than 20,000 Catholics left the church in March.

In America there was a furious response by Jewish groups to a Good Friday sermon by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Benedict’s personal preacher, in which he compared the wave of attacks on the church to anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, of the American Jewish Committee, protested: “So far I haven’t seen Saint Peter burn. The Vatican is trying to turn the persecutors into victims.”

While I doubt one will see Pope Benedict resign over the allegations, I had hoped for a less combative stance from the Roman Catholic Church.  Comparing to the attacks on the church for something it obviously did to anti-Semitism is not only horribly insensitive to Jews everywhere but also to the victims of child abuse at the hands of the church.  Years ago while driving home from Spiritwood, I was listening to an episode of CBC’s Tapestry and they covered the differences in how the Toronto and Ottawa dioceses handled sex abuse allegations.  One handled it like it’s lawyer’s would want it handled with an eye towards preventing liability while the other one handled it like a pastor would with an eye towards healing. 

The Roman Catholic Church needs to decide how it’s going to handle this.  With it touching the Pope, he is able to wade in and set the tone in a different way than his predecessor did.  He can set the tone for how those who have been hurt by the Church are to be treated and also how those that hurt them will forever be treated (never to be protected).

Now a friend of mine and reader of this blog (who gave me permission to post this part) who was sexually assaulted in his evangelical church does give some defense to the Catholic church.  When it was found out him and some other boys had been molested in this small town parish, he said the guy was more or less run out of town.  There was no desire for a cover up (not that he ever remembers) but he said the actions were taken because at that time (early 70s), no one knew what to do other than sending this guy on his way and the reality is that the offender probably went out and reoffended again.  At the time was that it protected the kids and deflected shame from the families.  Neither one of us are saying that that this makes it right what the Vatican did but it was a lot more of the common practice than it is now.

The Pope and the Vatican does have an opportunity in this and that is to really help those that have been hurt, lay out the consequences for priests who are pedophiles (excommunication, defrocking, and prison time), and build up structures for the protection of vulnerable people so it never happens again.  The only way to do all three is to tackle it all head on and stop the distraction of people comparing it’s critics of anti-Semitism, gossip, and shaming them in homilies by attack dog Cardinals.  It’s the issue that will define Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, we’ll see if he is up to the challenge.

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