Uncertain leadership in Vatican as abuse crisis rages

April 18, 2010
Rain clouds over St. Peter's Basilica, 12 Dec 2008/Chris Helgren

Rain clouds over St. Peter's Basilica, 12 Dec 2008/Chris Helgren

When countries are threatened or institutions are in trouble, they look to their leaders to show the way out of the crisis. 

The Vatican is in trouble, its moral authority sapped by mounting allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests in the past and cover ups by bishops supervising them.

But strong leadership from the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church is hard to discern. Pope Benedict rarely mentions the crisis and some aides have made things worse with comments that are mostly defensive and sometimes offend.

Catholic leaders argue the Church is not like secular bodies such as governments or companies, which is true. But it does live in the world and is judged by its legal standards when clergy commit crimes or the hierarchy covers them up.

George Abela, the Catholic president of the very Catholic island state of Malta, stressed this in his welcoming address to the visiting pope on Saturday when he spoke of priests who “unfortunately go astray”.

“It is therefore the Church and even the State’s duty to work hand in hand … to curb cases of abuse so that justice will not only be done but seen to be done,” he declared.

Benedict’s fullest statement on the crisis, his March 20 letter to the Irish, expressed shame and remorse and sharply criticised Ireland’s bishops over their handling of abuse cases. But he neither dismissed bishops nor proposed concrete reforms.

“There is nothing in this letter to suggest that any new vision of leadership in the Catholic Church exists,” Maeve Lewis of the victims’ group One in Four said in response.


Within the Vatican, Benedict actually has been the strongest voice calling for tougher treatment of the sexual abuse issue. He has apologised, most recently in his letter to the Irish, and met victims in the United States, Australia and Malta.

In Valletta on Sunday, he pledged the Church would do all it could to bring abusers to justice and protect youths in future.

But recent remarks by senior churchmen have given an inside glimpse into how hard it is to turn sincere words into decisive and visible action that would ensure justice is seen to be done.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn revealed the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wanted to probe an Austrian sex abuse scandal in 1995 but was blocked by rivals. He hinted opposition came from then Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Former Vatican official Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos said the late Pope John Paul authorised him to write a letter in 2001 praising a French bishop for hiding a predator priest. The note caused an uproar when it was posted on the Internet last week.

Many Irish Catholics hoped Benedict would restructure the Church in Ireland and force several bishops to step down after two damning reports on sexual abuse and cover ups there last year.

His disappointed critics overlooked the mention in his letter of an “apostolic visitation”, a Vatican probe into some Irish dioceses that could eventually lead to tough action.

But “eventually” can take a longer time at the Vatican, which famously thinks in centuries, than victims or loyal Catholics concerned for their Church’s image want to see.


Benedict also is unlikely to introduce reforms that critical Catholics or observers outside the Church think are needed.

Some demands bandied about — the pope should quit, scrap celibacy or allow women priests — are not directly relevant to the problem. They will not happen or not happen for a very long time in a Church where tradition counts so much.

One leading critical Catholic, Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, has suggested bishops should work on a regional level to push through reforms blocked by the Vatican. That is also very hard to imagine in such a centralised Church.

Even calls for transparency in decision making or women in top level jobs go against the more traditional vision of the priesthood and the Church that Benedict has fostered in hope of restoring the reverence and authority he feels have been lost.

While reporters in several countries dig through documents for any links between Benedict and sex abuse cases years ago, some Catholic publications have highlighted a potentially explosive scandal that could soon batter the Vatican.

The National Catholic Reporter weekly in the United States has alleged (here and here) that the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ order, lavished money on senior Vatican officials to deflect any probes into his double life.

A close friend of Pope John Paul, the Mexican priest also had a past record of sexually abusing seminarians and had at least one and possibly several children by mistresses, it said.

Once elected pope, Benedict packed him off to “a life of penitence and prayer.” But one of Maciel’s staunchest defenders is the influential Cardinal Sodano, who on Easter Sunday urged the pope to ignore  “the petty gossip of the moment”.

“Media misses the real scandal,” the London Catholic weekly The Tablet titled an editorial urging more focus on the Maciel scandal. The media have a right to probe Church scandals, it said, but may now be “looking entirely in the wrong direction.”

Here is the link to this analysis on the Reuters wire.

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It’s odd that anyone should be surprised at the current sexual child abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church. It should not be surprising because for anyone who knows the history of the Church, rampant sexual abuses of all kinds were quite commonplace for centuries. During the Middle Ages the Church had absolute power over people, and the people had no power at all to do anything, nor anyone to complain to. One can only imagine the lurid events in convents, monasteries, abbeys and other houses of God. That clergy went on doing this until the present time is only natural.

The trouble for the Church is, these days the environment outside the Church is different. A priest can no longer do as he pleases with the boys in church because these days the child can speak out without fear of being flogged by his parents, or bringing shame to the family, or excommunication, or even a visit to an Inquisition dungeon. So, the only difference between now and the 14th century is that now there’s an open press, a somewhat liberal society, and an inexorable distancing from religion and thus from the despotic yoke of the Church.

But no one should expect the Pope to make the right thing now, namely defrock these pederast priests and hand them over to the civil authorities for prosecution, because that is not what popes do. No, popes do not have the interests of Justice and the victims in mind, they have the interests of the Holy Church in mind, and that means thinking in the long term. And when it comes to thinking ahead and thinking of what will be best for the Church in the long term, the answer is always demurrals, delays, silence, and stonewalling for decades—even generations—until there’s no one alive who lived through the events in question, and the events are forgotten by all except some historians. By the time they narrate the events in history books, the people are so detached that the stories sound almost quaint. It’s like stories of the massacres perpetrated by Catholics in the name of religion during the Crusades or even the Religious Wars. Or the tortures and persecutions of the Inquisition. Who is revolted by these things these days? We would if they had just happened. But we are not because they happened so long ago that we tend to view them in the same way as the barbarous actions of any people in antiquity. This is the strategy of silent popes. It has worked wonderfully for the Church in the past. It’s up to right minded people today to prevent it from working for them again.

Gabriel Wilensky
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Posted by gwilensky | Report as abusive

Did anyone ask a question why this issue of child abuse is specific to RC Church? Not Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox Church, not in mosques or synagogues. The answer is simple: celibacy of RC priesthood. A man of normal sexual preferences would think many times over before going for RC priest career, so inevitably the seminaries are full of, speaking in politically correct terms, persons of unorthodox sexual orientation. Or, in lay terms, pederasts. As soon as the Church let the priests get married, the orientation of each and every priest will not be a secret anymore. There will be no risk of leaving boys in care of a married priest. As for the priests of alternative orientation, they need to be reminded the Holy Scriptures, as follows:
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

these events have nothing to do with a man’s natural sexual orientation. in our world there are more girls than boys getting groped by old pervs. the only reason we see boy-centered allegations here is because there aren’t girls to grope in the church.

the church has invented plenty of colorful language to snuff out and control the population, such as the above drivel written by that old crank leviticus.

funny that now, after centuries of fabricating fear and nonsense about human sexuality, their hateful tactics are blowing back in their faces under their own roof, where they have been hypocritically indulging themselves in the very pleasures that they admonish the people to deny.

it is time disband the irrelevant catholic church, turn the vatican into a campus for the care of the old, poor, and sick, to better suit their historic claims of compassion etc. and rewrite the ‘bible’ yet again to reflect contemporary paths to enlightenment for all people everywhere.

Posted by telyawot2 | Report as abusive