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

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Stefano Dal Pozzolo / Contrasto / Redux

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That mind-set has been deeply ingrained by history. The church is hard-wired with extraterritorial prerogatives that go back more than a millennium. The Catholic Church believes it is Christ's representative on earth, with all the sinlessness and omnipotent authority of its Saviour. The statesmen of the church have always known that to preserve that authority, the realm of the Popes could not simply be an otherworldly City of God. It also had to be an earthly power, if not equipped with military divisions (which it once possessed) then at least wielding the clout of secular government. The church must be a state.

That became more imperative as the secular authority of the papal states in Italy was stripped away by French and Spanish monarchs, Napoleon and Garibaldi, Mussolini and Hitler. The historian Melloni points out that the papacy was able to take advantage of its weakened condition to buttress support among the faithful by resorting to vittimismo, playing the victim and blaming others for preying on the church. "This actually had the effect of raising the devotion to the Pope," he says. That was the legacy of the 32-year reign of Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Pope Pius IX, who stage-managed the First Vatican Council into approving infallibility in 1869 with a suspect majority of bishops. In obedience to its divinely absolute monarch, the Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia, became even more centralized and domineering. So even as the Pope lost his divisions, the empire of Christ based in Rome constructed a government to rival the civil institutions in countries where its clergy served the faithful. Churches and cathedrals became the embassies of God and his vicar, the Pope, in the secular world.

In this system, any suspicion involving misbehavior by priests or nuns would instinctively be reported up the church's chain of command rather than to — heaven forbid — the district attorney's office. The overriding goal that trickled down to parishes was maintaining a cynical secrecy: avoiding scandal and preserving the good name of the church at any expense — a propensity made worse by the fact that the Curia was run by men versed in courtly skulduggery. In the cases of pedophilia, that meant the knee-jerk priorities were church and clergy, not the welfare of children.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope knew how to operate in the byzantine climate of the Italian-speaking Curia almost as soon as he arrived in Rome in 1981, according to a Vatican source who professes loyalty to the Pope. With Pope John Paul II uninterested in administration and often away from headquarters, Ratzinger became one of a handful of Cardinals vying for influence over the way the church was managed. He developed a reputation for decisive and principled action in his immediate purview of doctrine, though he was less transparent when it came to troublesome and embarrassing reports of sexual misbehavior by priests and bishops. But, says a longtime Vatican observer, Ratzinger "knew the place well and saw a lot of long knives." He appears to have chosen his battles carefully.

In 1995 he managed to force the removal of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër as the Archbishop of Vienna, but, according to the New York Times, he did not fight to set up a fact-finding commission to investigate Groër's alleged molestation of young boys after it was blocked by John Paul II's personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz (now Archbishop of Krakow) and the powerful Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano (now dean of the College of Cardinals). Ratzinger, however, did get to see his student and friend Christoph Schönborn succeed Groër as Archbishop of Vienna.

Though efficient, Ratzinger could also be shortsighted. In one case, he seemed more determined to preserve the church's dwindling clerical resources than to seek justice. In a case detailed in April by the Associated Press, a child-molester priest had requested to be defrocked, and the local bishop in Oakland, Calif., repeatedly sent letters to Ratzinger's office in Rome to try to have the procedure finalized. Not only did the case move slowly, but a 1985 letter signed by the Cardinal cautioned the bishop "to consider the good of the Universal Church" and cited "the young age" of the priest in delaying the defrocking.

Benedict XVI has his defenders, however, those who believe it is an injustice that he should be dragged into the center of the scandal. Even before ascending to the papacy, Ratzinger had helped police the crisis while most of his colleagues in Rome were still trying to sweep the allegations under the rug. Indeed, Ratzinger's policies, particularly after his office was assigned to oversee the most grievous cases in 2001, may have contributed to the decline in new incidents of clerical sex abuse. Just before his election as Pope, the Cardinal preached on Good Friday in 2005 of the need to eliminate the "filth" within the church's ranks. Once on the throne, Benedict swiftly banished to a monastery and a life of penance the satyr-like Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the aging but influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico, who had long been shielded by other top Curia officials, including John Paul II, from repeated accusations of sexual abuse. Most memorably, during a 2008 trip to the U.S., Benedict met five victims of clergy sex abuse in an unprecedented and unannounced encounter, without any press, at the Holy See's embassy in Washington. It was the most powerful pastoral gesture of Benedict's papacy — one he would repeat during a subsequent trip to Australia and in Malta this past April.

But in March 2010, German journalists revealed a record that complicates the Pope's reputation. In Munich in 1980, then Archbishop Ratzinger had personally authorized the transfer of an abusive priest, Peter Hullermann, from another part of Germany to his own archdiocese, ostensibly for therapy. But just days after his arrival, the priest was allowed to serve among the flock. Hullermann would be convicted of subsequent sexual assaults in 1986. The Vatican insists that, like other Archbishops, Ratzinger wasn't responsible for the parish assignments of priests, even those with a history of abusing children. A rising star, Ratzinger — a brilliant religious philosopher — had been put on an administrative track and was on the verge of his 1981 reassignment to Rome to work in the Curia. But defending the Pope by pointing out that he was following the standard operating procedures of the day or that he was not focused on his oversight duties no longer cuts it for most Catholics. "The impression it leaves is that these things simply weren't very important to the bishops and Cardinals," says Melloni. "To say he didn't know is not a defense; it's the problem."

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