AS HE celebrates his 83d birthday and fifth anniversary as pope this month, Joseph Ratzinger — now Benedict XVI — has been given a mission for the rest of his life. It is to rescue the Roman Catholic Church from a scandal for which he is partially to blame.
It will not be enough to express sorrow over victims and shame over the conduct of priests who molest young boys, though the pope’s statements along those lines in recent days may be a sign that he understands the magnitude of the clergy sex abuse crisis. It’s a unique scandal, cutting at the underpinnings of the church. It jeopardizes the relationship between clergy and laity, and implicates the pope himself in a sweeping cover-up.
There is now no doubt about Benedict’s efforts, as a cardinal, to slow down investigations of even cases in which a priest’s guilt was unchallenged. When a priest convicted of tying up and abusing two young boys asked to be dismissed, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned that “the good of the Universal church’’ must be considered in weighing whether to go along with the request. He raised such concerns in multiple cases in contexts that clearly suggested he was willing to downplay offenses in order to protect the church’s reputation.
There is no precedent for atoning for such lapses in judgment. Calling for Benedict’s resignation, as the Rev. James Scahill of East Longmeadow recently did, is one option. Only the pope can punish the pope. Indeed, Benedict’s resignation might make sense if he were the central problem, and removing him would make it go away. But that’s not the case. His actions, though serious, were similar to those of other church leaders. As pope, he at least has been more responsive to clergy sex abuse than his predecessor.
That’s not to say he’s done enough. On Wednesday, in the course of describing a meeting with eight men on the Mediterranean island of Malta who had been abused by priests, Benedict spoke publicly of the revelations for the first time, promising “church action.’’ A Vatican statement later declared that “the church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations.’’
But what might “all in its power’’ mean? To give substance to Benedict’s promise, the church must work closely with legal authorities, and explicitly reverse an ambiguous order that some church officials interpreted as discouraging their cooperation with civilian investigations.
But Benedict’s mission should be broader and deeper. The scandal has exposed a cosseted, secretive culture among some members of the all-male clergy, suggesting that some priests and bishops are so far removed from the realities of everyday life that their own moral compasses are awry. This mind-set has made it all too easy for church officials to mistake outside scrutiny for anti-Catholic animus. It has kept the clergy from recognizing the extent of the suffering of victims and their families, and the need to win back the trust of whole communities.
Benedict should devote the rest of his life and his papacy to promoting healing. He should throw open the doors of the church, and bring sunshine to the darkest corners of the Vatican.