April 1, 2010
It's Holy Week, the most solemn time in the Christian Church's liturgical year. Those who tune in the TV to watch Pope Benedict XVI officiating at those magnificent ceremonies at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome may have some other stray thoughts running in the back of their heads: What did he know? When did he know it? What did he do about it?
These ancient rites commemorating the passion and resurrection of Jesus are in their essence the same as those enacted in Rome for over 1500 years, performed by popes as noble and saintly as Gregory the Great and John XXIII and as smarmy and sinful as the Borgias and Medicis. According to the doctrine of ex opere operato, long ago established to deal with lapsed priests after the Roman persecutions, the moral condition of the presider has no bearing on the efficacy of the act. The validity of a sacrament comes from "the work worked," not from the worthiness of the one working it.
Yet it is the question of worthiness that may bother us as we watch. Benedict — theologian, intellectual, champion of orthodoxy — can hardly be compared with the Medicis, but does he share the guilt of denial in the sexual-abuse scandals that have infected the Catholic Church in the U.S., Europe, and possibly beyond?
The cock crows; is it crowing for him?
The particular scandal that may undermine his papacy goes back to the 1980's, when he was Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich. Hard on to Holy Week, the New York Times revealed memos and minutes of meetings showing that Ratzinger was aware of if not instrumental in the reinstatement of a pedophile priest in his diocese who continued his abuses and was eventually convicted under civil law. The Times also broke a disturbing story of the abuse of dozens of boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee in the 1970's and the inaction by the Vatican office headed by Ratzinger when it was finally brought there by the Milwaukee bishop years after.
The dynamic in these two cases is identical to almost every other one everywhere: Same time-period — late 1960's through mid- 1980's; and same response — the bishop is apparently aware but passive, leaving the disposition of pedophile priests to ecclesiastical bureaucrats who put them into therapy and then reassign them. The pattern was so uniform and so worldwide, despite there being at the time no body of Church law or regulation to refer to, that one can only conclude that it was the product of an insular institutional culture operating out of ignorance, compassion, and fear: ignorance of the intractable nature of pedophilia and the belief that it was a moral rather than a pathological problem, a sin to be absolved and healed by confession and its grace; compassion for a fellow priest and the understandable desire to shield the faithful from scandal; and fear of intrusion by secular authorities into what was seen as an internal matter.
Things are different now. As with the Church's stance on slavery, which throughout much of its history was commonly accepted as a given but is now recognized as appallingly evil, moral acuity develops over time. Pedophile priests were treated with a now-unbelievable institutional blindness to the agony of the victims, de facto aided by a laity fiercely loyal to the institution and unwilling to think the unthinkable, that their pastors could ever do such despicable things.
As with slavery, the unmasking of clergy sexual abuse has led to shamed apologies and reparations for past evils and stringent policies to avoid future ones. To their credit, both the present pope and national conferences of bishops have done admirable work towards these ends. But there remain elements of coverup, reluctance to come completely clean, from certain bishops' stonewalling the release of documents to the pope's own silence about his involvement in the Munich case. It's this lack of "transparency," what writer David Gibson has called "circling the wagons," that is fueling the present furor.
We are not used to popes speaking personally. We see them as icons, not individuals, successors of St. Peter, by whose office the work is worked.
But Peter himself, afraid for his life after his master's arrest, three times denied knowing Jesus. Realizing his betrayal, the Gospels recount, "he went out and wept bitterly." Full disclosure.
No matter how great or how small the culpability, the icon of Peter should do nothing less.