Pope’s 5th anniversary is troubled
Sex abuse scandal hits close to home
VATICAN CITY — Soon after becoming pope, Benedict XVI flew to Germany to keep a promise to attend a church youth festival. Upon arrival, strong winds blew off his skull cap. The same day, on a boat bringing the pope down the Rhine, gusts toppled a cross from the bow, breaking one of its arms.
In retrospect, not an auspicious beginning.
Benedict, elected as an “interim pope’’ by cardinals seeking a breather after nearly three decades of the charismatic John Paul II, is now marking five years as a successor to St. Peter. But the anniversary of his election on April 19, 2005, is clouded by a worldwide sex abuse scandal that touches Benedict himself, follows earlier controversies involving ties with Islam, and is causing the gravest crisis to hit the church in recent times.
The first German pope of the modern era took the helm of the Catholic church after 24 years in the backroom of power with a clear design: to make its 1.1 billion member flock more in line with church teaching even at the cost of shedding members and without catering to the mass media.
But since a 2006 speech in which Benedict angered Muslims by appearing to suggest the prophet Muhammad spread a message of violence, the papacy has been marked by missteps, mismanagement and media disasters.
Benedict, who turned 83 yesterday, is seeing his very legacy threatened as his own actions as bishop and cardinal have come under question. The pope has come under suspicion of trying to quash investigations into pedophile priests during the time he ran the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s guardian of church discipline and orthodoxy.
In perhaps the biggest irony, the sex abuse scandal is one Benedict inherits from his charismatic and immensely more popular predecessor, John Paul II.
The Polish pontiff is now widely seen as dragging his feet on eliminating sex abuse from the church, presiding over a system where even notorious pedophile priests were allowed to retain their parishes, or were transferred to serve in other countries.
Benedict almost immediately took a hard stand on sex abuse when he become pope five years ago. He is credited with removing a prominent Mexican cleric — a favorite of John Paul’s — from power following decades of allegations that he abused seminarians.
Many of Benedict’s woes stem from his chronic inability to manage his message, a weakness perhaps rooted in his career as an academic with extremely limited experience handling a flock. Even staunch defenders acknowledge communications problems.
“Let’s be clear. Everyone has communications problems. One could do better,’’ Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, told reporters in Rome a few days before the anniversary.
But Vian also stressed that the pope still enjoys the full support of his collaborators and has been undeterred by the sex abuse maelstrom.
“They say the pope is alone, that the Vatican is a nest of snakes,’’ Vian said. “It’s obvious that in such a big world there are different sensibilities. But with all tranquillity and serenity, the Curia is with the pope. There are no unfaithful servants.’’
While Benedict has made clear he doesn’t see the papacy as a popularity contest, he did put John Paul on the fast track toward sainthood after a popular “Santo Subito’’ (Sainthood Now) movement took root at his funeral.
Benedict’s tougher stance against abusers started in the latter years of his tenure at the Congregation. Looking back, John Paul appears to have been more reluctant to follow up on abuse accusations against priests based on his experiences in his native Poland under communism, where the regime used such allegations when it sought to discredit clerics.
John Paul has been accused of letting his appreciation for the discipline, fundraising prowess, and conservative bent of the Legionaries of Christ get in the way of an investigation into decades-old allegations that its Mexican-born founder had sexually abused young seminarians.
Benedict had been thwarted in his efforts to pursue a church trial against the Rev. Marcial Maciel during John Paul’s papacy. Upon assuming the papacy, Benedict moved against Maciel, ordering him to live a life of reserved prayer while also launching an investigation into the order itself.