Catholic Europe: How Damaged Is the Papacy?

A string of sex-abuse scandals across Europe rocks the Catholic Church and threatens to undermine Pope Benedict XVI

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Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis

Pope Benedict's silence on the sexual-abuse scandal in Berlin has disappointed many Catholics in his native Germany

Updated

On Good Friday 2005, as a dying Pope John Paul II watched via video hookup, worshippers outside the candlelit Way of the Cross ceremony in Rome's Colosseum recited meditations written by the man who would be his successor. Breaking with tradition, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's musings veered away from Christ's Passion and into the Catholic Church's current problems. "How much filth there is in the Church," he wrote, clearly referring to the charges of sex abuse by priests that had rocked the church in the U.S. "And even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!"

But if Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, felt an unalloyed loathing for the abusers, his view on how they should be treated was more complicated. Some years before, as head of the Vatican body investigating abuse by priests, he argued that accused clergymen should not be handed over to secular authorities. Rather, he wrote confidentially to bishops around the world in 2001, they should first be investigated under utmost secrecy within the church — thereby avoiding public hysteria and second-guessing by the media.

Secrecy is a luxury no longer available to Benedict. The recent revelations of sex-abuse scandals in Europe have smashed the perception that predatory priests are an American anomaly. Hundreds of accusations, from Ireland and now mainland Europe, have thrust the Vatican into the grip of its greatest crisis since the 2002 revelations of abuse in the U.S. The church's standing is falling to new lows among believers in its European heartland. Sensing the growing public alarm, some within the clergy are pushing for profound institutional and ecclesiastical changes, including an end to the priesthood's fundamental tenet of celibacy.

For the Pope, all this has become deeply personal: many of the latest scandals are rooted in his native Germany, and they have dragged in his own brother, who headed a famous Bavarian choir at a school where young boys were allegedly abused. Benedict himself stands accused of poorly handling the case of a pedophile priest when he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the early 1980s. While there's virtually no chance of the Pope himself being brought down — the last time a Pontiff bowed out in disgrace was in 1046 (Gregory VI, for financial impropriety) — it is entirely possible the scandals will permanently sully his papacy. "This is going to be a major part of his legacy," says an American priest in Rome who asked not to be named.

The Pope's defenders say he has tried hard to force the church to confront its demons openly. "As Pope, he has been unusually and laudably aggressive in dealing with abusers," says David Gibson, author of a Benedict biography. Benedict has on several occasions called for "absolute transparency" on sexual abuse. During a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2008, he met in private with some victims of abuse by American priests. But he has been remarkably unforthcoming about the latest scandals. If the Pope does reveal his feelings about the current upheaval, it may be in writing: he said he would shortly publish a pastoral letter — a papal guide on how the church in Ireland should respond to charges of pedophilia among priests there. But it's unclear if it will address the church's broader crisis or the charges in Germany that allegedly involve him personally.

(Update: On March 20, Benedict's letter was read to Catholic Church congregations throughout Ireland and Europe. It rebuked the actions of the Irish hierarchy for "grave errors of judgment" but said nothing about the Vatican's responsibility in the scandal, which saw the alleged abuse of thousands of children over seven decades. The Pope, however, did apologize for the suffering of the Irish. "It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church," the Pope wrote. "In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.")

His reluctance to speak out surprises and hurts many Catholics. "Many Catholics in Germany had hoped that the Pope would have expressed a word of personal sympathy for the victims of abuse," says Christian Weisner, spokesman for the well-known Catholic reform group We Are Church. Papal officials, however, defend Benedict's silence. "The Pope was not part of what happened back then, and he shouldn't be part of it now," says a Vatican insider. Indeed, the Vatican has mounted an aggressive campaign to portray the scandals as an attempt to besmirch the Pope and discredit the church as a whole. "Over recent days some people have sought, with considerable persistence ... [to] personally involve the Holy Father in questions of abuse," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a written commentary. Another senior official goes further. "They want to involve the Pope at all costs," he tells TIME. "It's a desire to destroy the church, and this is an operation that has been well planned. They don't like the church's teachings on moral questions and sexuality, and this is how they think they can strike."

Who "they" are is uncertain. Like conspiracy theorists of every stripe, the Vatican doesn't name its enemies.

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