Pope unfairly tarnished

  • March 19, 2010
{mosimage}Thousands of words have been written and spoken in recent days about Pope Benedict XVI and the latest child-abuse scandal sweeping Europe. Much of it originates from a secular media that, in the Internet age, too often seems driven by a nudge-nudge, wink-wink modus operandi. The challenge, then, is to separate fact from fiction.

To his credit, the Pope has never tried to hide from the modern tragedy of the church: the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests. On the contrary, prior to recent events he has earned praise even from church critics for his up-front handling of an ever-widening tragedy that continues to plague Europe and North America.

Since his papacy began in 2005, Benedict has often addressed this painful issue. In 2008 he met with American victims of abuse and expressed sympathy for their pain and shame for the church’s sins. In 2009 he conveyed sorrow and regret during a Vatican meeting with a delegation of native Canadians who had been abused in church-run residential schools. Last month he summoned Irish bishops to an historic meeting and, imminently, will release an unprecedented Pastoral Letter to address the painful issue of clerical sex abuse.

His reaction to the most recent abuse scandal in Germany has been to urge German bishops to fully investigate every allegation and to be decisive in confronting offenders and comforting victims. His actions as pontiff mirror his prior initiatives as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he implemented measures to confront, judge and punish abusive priests.

So it is tragic that Benedict has recently become a target for media outlets eager to link him to the 1980s crimes of an abusive priest. In 1980, then Cardinal Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich, acceded to a request from a northern German bishop to provide housing for a suspected abuser priest from Essen so the priest could be treated in Munich. The priest was later returned to pastoral duties, without the knowledge of Ratzinger, and subsequently committed crimes against children.

Following news reports that, largely through innuendo, suggested the Pope was complicit in a coverup 30 years ago, the Vatican responded with unusual haste to make it clear he was “completely unconnected” to the Essen priest’s reinstatement. The reinstatement was approved by the vicar general in Munich shortly before then-Cardinal Ratzinger was promoted to Rome. But the harm had been done.

Benedict’s doggedness in confronting and, on occasion, publicly denouncing sex abuse has provided some buffer to the corrosion of the church’s moral credibility. In the wake of the latest headlines, retaining that respect will not be easy but is the next essential step forward.

If anything, the Pope needs to become even more vocal, assertive and relentless in attacking this scourge that has damaged the church and inflicted so much harm on children.

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