Why Popes Never Have to Say Sorry

The Pope can cite theology and tradition in defense of the church, but with many Catholics wanting a very modern kind of accounting for the sex abuse scandal, words and ritual may no longer be enough

  • Stefano Dal Pozzolo / Contrasto / Redux

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    "There's a belief system," says McDaid today, "that the priest and the bishop and the Pope himself would always be right. The people gave them the power because it was supposed to be a force for good. It was the power of God." Now, he goes on, "people are gasping for breath ... They don't know where to put their faith." He stops and asks, knowing there is yet no answer, "What do I do when I pray?"

    The Gospel of St. Mark prescribes a fate for those who harm children: "And whoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea." But the outrage embodied in those words has been absent in much of the church's response to crimes committed by its priests. For years, offending clerics were, at most, banished to silence and distant monasteries or to therapy or sometimes defrocked for what in civilian cases would have earned the guilty long prison terms.

    Today the Vatican appears to be advising bishops in places from India to Italy to quickly remand new cases to civilian authorities. But how can it remedy past injustices? A mea culpa — literally, an acceptance of personal guilt — would be a start, and Benedict has a draft to work from: the letter he wrote to Catholics in Ireland on March 19 in the wake of sex scandals that have debilitated the church there. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry," Benedict wrote. "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen ... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel."

    The words are moving, and for some Catholics, it may be enough to hear the Pope express remorse this way. But Benedict has also talked of penance. In the language of the church, the sacrament of penance involves confession and then a priestly absolution of the sinner. But what kind of penance would a Pope with fingerprints on the controversy have to perform? There lies an intricate theological problem.

    As the crisis grew in March and went on into April, many in the Vatican worried about the effect it would have on the papal magisterium — the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God. Vatican officials are concerned that a mea culpa would diminish the magisterium, which has been integral to the papacy's ability to project power in the world throughout its history, from the humiliation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in the 11th century to the humbling of Soviet power in Poland in the 20th. It plays a key role in the doctrine of papal infallibility, which declares that the Pope is never in error when he issues teachings ex cathedra — that is, elucidating dogma from the throne of St. Peter. It is tied up in the traditional prerogatives of that Apostle, to whom was given the power "to bind and loose" in heaven and on earth — in rough terms, the church's ability to open the gates of heaven to you or damn you to hell because it will always be holier than thou.

    A truly successful mea culpa and penance for the abuse scandal must preserve the magisterium while dealing with these facts: Ratzinger, both in his role as the local bishop in Munich from 1977 to 1981 and as the overseer of universal doctrine in Rome, was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century. An effective mea culpa must assuage the faithful but still be couched in such a way that the shortcomings of the prepapal administrative record of Ratzinger are admitted and atoned for separately from the deeds of Benedict XVI, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. In that regard, the letter to the Irish faithful, while a model, has limited utility. The Pope was merely apologizing for errors committed by the hierarchy of Ireland, not for anything he or, indeed, the Holy See may have done, much less the mystical entity called the Church, the bride of Christ. Presented with the scenario of a personal apology by the human embodiment of the church, a well-placed Vatican official sighed as he weighed the theological and historical implications. "It's dangerous," he said. "It's dangerous."

    When the Church Is a State
    "In the end, the only sad thing is that sometimes these cases took time," a Vatican insider says, describing the fact that most of the incidents of sexual abuse are decades old. But that prompts a question: Why didn't the church simply report to the civil authorities the crimes its priests were suspected of committing?

    Church officials defensively point out that almost all the alleged crimes at the heart of the current crisis were part of a social milieu in which child sexual abuse was rarely prosecuted, if discussed at all. But nowhere was there a more systemic tendency to cover up the shame and scandal than in Catholic parishes and orphanages entrusted with the care of the young — which showed no compunction about avoiding the civil authorities altogether. Even now, with the Vatican pressing bishops to turn in errant priests, some cling to the old ethos. In early April, the eccentric Archbishop Dadeus Grings of Porto Alegre, Brazil, told the newspaper O Globo that priestly abuse was a matter of internal church discipline, not something to report to the police. "For the church to go and accuse its own sons would be a little strange," Grings, 73, reportedly said.

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