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5 Questions on Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis

Pope Benedict XVI

The announcement that Pope Benedict XVI renounced the papacy on Feb. 28 caused many in the media to revisit one of the major issues of his pontificate: the clergy sexual abuse scandal that dominated the news for nearly a decade in the United States, Australia, and parts of Europe.

The record of Pope Benedict XVI has also come under scrutiny, with many in the secular media repeating a discredited clam that the pope had failed to act properly in dealing with the crisis and may even have been complicit in cover-ups and transferring abuser priests.

What is the truth? Here are some frequently asked questions.

1. What did Pope Benedict XVI do specifically as pope to prevent further cases of sexual abuse by clergy?

For those willing to make a fair assessment of the pope’s actions regarding the sexual abuse crisis, the last eight years have brought immense progress in combating the scourge of this problem in the Church. The pope was not afraid of controversy, most notably in the actions he took against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. He spoke out, quite plainly and with increasing passion, on the scandals. He brought to Rome the bishops of Ireland and Germany to receive full reports on their actions to implement effective norms and programs to safeguard children in every area of the Church’s life and ministry. He spoke bluntly about the crisis to the bishops of the United States during his visit in 2008, stating:

Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayerful support of God’s people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.

During this time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) mandated that every diocese implement basic norms for handling cases, subject to the specific laws of each country, and imposed time frames for their implementation. The norms for all of the world's dioceses are based on the norms first established for the Church in the United States in 2002 and that have proven immensely successful in creating a safe environment for children and those serving the Church and in reducing drastically the number of cases each year. Cristina Odone, a columnist for the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, concluded that "this Pope has done more than any other churchman to address the issue of priestly child abuse."

2. Did the pope ever apologize to the victims of clergy sexual abuse?

Pope BXVI and Abuse CrisisYes. Pope Benedict has made public and private apologies for the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse. He has privately apologized to victims in his sessions with them. His public apologies have included his visit to the United States in 2008. During the flight to Washington, D.C., he announced that the issue of the sexual abuse crisis was not going to be given little attention or that it was some mere afterthought. It was the first major topic of discussion for the pope and remained so throughout the visit.

Second, the pontiff established a willingness to speak in unmistakable terms of penance for the Church. He says plainly, "I am ashamed and we will do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen in future."

The pope then detailed a threefold plan for dealing with the crisis. This echoes the sound policies that had been adopted in the United States and that he has, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, helped install.

The first point was a concern with justice. He affirmed that the Church "will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry; it is absolutely incompatible, and whoever is really guilty of being a pedophile cannot be a priest." Another part of justice is to do everything possible to bring true justice to the victims of abuse. This is in keeping with the Church's understanding of the cardinal virtue described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good."

The pope then noted the pastoral level, in that the victims of abuse "will need healing and help and assistance and reconciliation," but he added his belief that "the bishops and the priests and all Catholic people in the United States will do whatever possible to help, to assist, to heal."

Finally, he made note of the institutional reform of the seminarians. He had approved a visitation of the seminaries in the United States and was determined that those admitted to the seminary should be "sound persons" who demonstrate "a deep personal life in Christ and who have a deep sacramental life."

One of the most pointed and public apologies issued by the pontiff was his "Letter to the Irish." He wrote to the people of Ireland:

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.

3. Did Pope Benedict ever meet with abuse victims?

Yes. Pope Benedict has met with abuse victims on numerous occasions. One of the most notable was in 2008 during his visit to the United States.

4. What role did the pope have in helping the Church in the United States deal with the sex abuse crisis?

From the time that the bishops of the United States began grappling fully with the problem of clergy sexual abuse in 2002, they were encouraged and assisted in their work by Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then head of the CDF. The bishops introduced the so-called Dallas Charter and the imposition of the Essential Norms, by which dioceses created safe environments for children, launched a "zero tolerance" policy regarding abuse, and worked to improve the formation of priests and seminary system. The results have been nothing short of dramatic. The audits by the National Review Board found that in the last years the numbers of annually reported cases of sexual abuse of minors in the entire Church in the United States had declined to single digits. Cardinal Ratzinger was instrumental in bringing the bishops to Rome to report to Pope John Paul II and also in streamlining the approval process by the Holy See.

5. What did he do as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to push for reform in the Church’s handling of cases?

Cardinal Ratzinger became increasingly convinced of the need to rid the Church of what he called the "filth" of abuse and emerged as one of the Vatican's most dedicated leaders in confronting the growing crisis.

As Cardinal Ratzinger and his staff became aware of the breadth and depth of the abuse problem, he underwent what John Allen, a longtime commentator on Vatican matters, called Ratzinger's "conversion experience."

At the heart of that "conversion" was the CDF's increasing immersion in the clergy abuse cases after Pope John Paul II assigned it responsibility to oversee all of the cases worldwide.

On May 18, 2001, the pope promulgated an apostolic letter called Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela ("The Safeguarding of the Sacraments"). The document, which had been in drafting and broad consultation for several years, was most noteworthy for the fact that it confirmed the CDF's responsibility for disciplinary review and action regarding violations associated with abuse, including the solicitation to a sexual sin (a sin "against the sixth commandment") under the pretext of the confession if involving the confessor himself or the granting of absolution to "an accomplice" in a sexual sin by the confessor.

It also said that it reserved to the CDF the responsibility for reviewing sexual violations "committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years." Such acts are "to be punished according to the gravity of the offense, not excluding dismissal or deposition." In Canon law, the age of a minor was listed as under 16 years. In the 1990s the U.S. bishops had asked that the age of a minor be defined as under 18 so that it would match state law in defining the upper age of minors. The apostolic letter also addressed a long-standing request by U.S. bishops that the statute of limitations be lengthened, in this case for 10 years, rather than five, after the victim has reached his or her 18th birthday.

In short, what the apostolic letter did was require bishops to report cases of clergy sexual abuse to the CDF.

In a letter to the world's bishops at the time of the document’s release, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that while probable cases had to be reported to the CDF, the Congregation could allow the cases to be held in the local diocese or it could bring the case before its own tribunal.

While Canon Law, particularly canon 1395, has made clear that the sexual abuse of minors by clerics is a violation of law, the new procedures created a more effective process for the large number of cases being uncovered. By requiring that such cases be reported to Rome, it also addressed concerns that abuse cases were being handled differently in different dioceses and countries.

In his March 17, 2010 column for the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen said Cardinal Ratzinger and his staff "seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess":

Of the 500-plus cases that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealt with prior to Benedict's election to the papacy, the substantial majority were returned to the local bishop authorizing immediate action against the accused priest – no canonical trial, no lengthy process, just swift removal from ministry and, often, expulsion from the priesthood. In a more limited number of cases, the congregation asked for a canonical trial, and in a few cases the congregation ordered the priest reinstated.

That marked a stark reversal from the initial insistence of Vatican officials, Ratzinger included, that in almost every instance the accused priest deserved the right to canonical trial. Having sifted through the evidence, Ratzinger and [Msgr. Charles J.] Scicluna apparently drew the conclusion that in many instances the proof was so overwhelming that immediate action was required.

Among insiders, the change of climate was dramatic.

These answers were compiled by Matthew Bunson who, with Greg Erlandson, authored Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010)
Originally published on the OSV Daily Take blog. Reprinted with author's permission.

Dr. Matthew Bunson

Written by

Dr. Matthew Bunson, Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, is one of the United States’ leading authorities on the papacy and the Church. His many books include Pope Francis (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013); The Encyclopedia of Catholic History (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004); and The Angelic Doctor: The Life and World of St. Thomas Aquinas (Our Sunday Visitor, 1994). Dr. Bunson is on the faculty of the Catholic Distance University where he teaches Church History, including Catholic-Islamic relations and Medieval and American Catholic History. Dr. Bunson has also served as a consultant to MSNBC, NBC News, CBS Radio, and the BBC, as well as other media outlets. He was special consultant on Catholic affairs for USA Today during its coverage of the 2005 and 2013 papal conclaves. He earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation, and also holds a B.A. in History, an M.A. in Theology, and a Master of Divinity degree. He is presently working toward a Ph.D. in Church History from the Graduate Theological Foundation. Follow Dr. Bunson online through the Our Sunday Visitor blog.

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