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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    Ratzinger's reputation for being a man of detail makes it hard to fathom that he knew nothing about Hullermann's return to active ministry. The Pope has yet to address this period of his career explicitly. But if he is to satisfy victims and their families, he will have to do so one day. That Benedict is personally touched by the crisis "doesn't surprise me at all," says abuse victim Horne, who met with the Pope in Washington in 2008. "He's complicit in this, as is two-thirds of the hierarchy." Horne is asking for a full accounting of past abuse, accompanied by new church rules for monitoring and responding to future cases, with victims given a central role in the process. He insists, however, that he and most other victims have no interest in bringing down either the Pope or the church. "We are looking for a moral response," he says.

    What Can Benedict Do?
    The Pope does not give interviews. His opinions must often be excavated from sermons, prayers and other carefully scripted declarations. So this year, on Palm Sunday, Vaticanologists could only assume that Benedict had formed his perspective on the scandal all the world was talking about when, in the Italian he speaks with a Bavarian accent, he delivered a homily advising Christians to be courageous and not be intimidated by the " chiacchiericcio " — petty gossip — "of dominant opinions."

    Yet throughout the week that followed, the holiest of the Christian calendar, you could see the crisis etched on his face. Some in the Vatican called it sorrow, like unto Jesus' sorrow on the Cross. Benedict appeared worn and gloomy even when framed by the glories of St. Peter's Basilica and the liturgies that typically infuse him with vigor. After Easter, when there was no end to the stories of the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests and how the incidents were covered up, the old guard in the Vatican ramped up vittimismo , blaming the media, atheists, homosexuals and moneygrubbing lawyers for exploiting the crisis. But that did little to buy sympathy or change the dominant opinion that Benedict's papacy was permanently damaged.

    Since then, extraordinary measures have been taken — swift maneuvering for a 2,000-year-old organization led by a shy if determined 83-year-old theologian. In mid-April, Benedict held the reportedly teary-eyed, closed-door meeting with sex-abuse victims in Malta; at about the same time came a sped-up housecleaning, with the Pope accepting the resignations of several bishops — one for sex abuse, others for mishandling such cases. The Holy See also announced that the Legionaries of Christ was now under direct Vatican control. High-ranking members of the hierarchy spoke to journalists about the anguish they felt over the scandals.

    Then, on May 11, on his way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, the Pope answered previously submitted questions from the press on his plane. Though he spoke in the primly ecclesiastical style of Pontiffs, it was clear what he was talking about: "The greatest persecution of the church doesn't come from the enemies on the outside but is born from the sin within the church," he said, adding that "the church, therefore, has the profound need to learn penance again, to accept purification." And while forgiving sins may be a Christian imperative, Benedict said, "forgiveness does not replace justice."

    That cry for justice was a sign that something was changing in Rome. It was not the only one. Just before the Fatima trip, a frisson went through the Vatican when Archbishop Schönborn of Vienna used an off-the-record meeting with reporters to criticize Cardinal Sodano, 82, a rare showdown between two powerful "princes of the church." In the published remarks, which Schönborn, 65, has not repudiated, the Austrian Archbishop took the former Vatican Secretary of State to task for his blame-the-outsiders defense of the church as well as for his role in the Groër case. With Schönborn's remarks coming just before the Pope's on the plane to Portugal, some Vatican watchers saw backstage melodrama: Was Schönborn serving as a stand-in for the Pope and singling out who was to blame for the sin within the church? If Sodano and other powerful players in Rome see the sequence of events as an orchestrated attempt to present Ratzinger as the lone Cardinal trying to combat sex abuse within an otherwise uncaring Vatican hierarchy, they are unlikely to accept it without challenge. " Bollente ," says a Vatican insider, using the Italian word for "red hot" to describe the Sodano-Schönborn contretemps. As if to cap the period of dramatic moves by the papacy, a purportedly impromptu crowd of 150,000 people, organized by Catholic lay groups, showed up to cheer the Pope in St. Peter's Square the Sunday after his return from Portugal.

    But is Benedict really about to embark on a shake-up of the entrenched hierarchy that covered up the sex-abuse cases for decades? Or is this just a more effective public relations strategy?

    The concepts of penance and justice involve answering to God or man or both. Who will the Pope answer to? In the past, Ratzinger appeared to be ambivalent about papal atonement. The spectacular Day of Pardon in 2000 was John Paul II's idea, and Ratzinger, then a Cardinal, had to go along as a good soldier. The official presentation of the ritual — a document almost certainly approved by Ratzinger — tried to play it both ways: "The confession of sins made by the Pope is addressed to God, who alone can forgive sins, but it is also made before men, from whom the responsibilities of Christians cannot be hidden." So far, so penitential. But Benedict's latest words during the trip to Fatima seem to hedge how far he is willing to expose the institution he runs to liability: he assigned wrongdoing not to the church but to its servants.

    It's a critical point. The consequences of sin are subject to divine salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public humiliation and the loss of property. That may not matter when the crimes are deep in the past and the victims dead. But the current pedophilia scandal involves people who are still living — and who are demanding redress. "For a church that is famous for moving slowly, they've been moving pretty fast lately," says McDaid, the abuse victim from Massachusetts. But, he says, that's because "these people are in fear. They should be in fear. This isn't going to go away just with words."

    What words might Benedict say next? Several well-placed Vatican officials have floated the idea that the Pope may deliver a mea culpa at a convention that starts on June 9 in Rome, marking the end of the church's Year of the Priest. "Expectations are again building up for the Pope to say something that will somehow resolve everything," says a Vatican source. But the Pope seems to have no such plan in mind. "It has backed him into a corner," says the source, speaking of the speculation that a mea culpa is coming. "It is clear that people at the Vatican are not singing from the same hymnbook." And there's a problem with the occasion too. "Tens of thousands of good, holy priests who are trying to do their best are coming to Rome," says the source. "If the message is about sex abuse, it's like saying, In the end, this is your fault.' If he wants to bring together the bishops of the world for a mea culpa, that might make more sense."

    As for challenging the Curia, a Benedict loyalist in the Vatican doubts that the aging Pope can take on the established powers of the church at this stage of his papacy. Moreover, to seek accountability for the culture of cover-up means undermining the legacy of his great friend and hero John Paul II, under whose watch much of the crisis occurred and whose papacy quite consciously chose to ignore the clamor of abuse victims until it exploded into a public scandal in 2002. The Polish Pontiff is on the fast track to sainthood. Says a Vatican insider: "When John Paul II is canonized, it will be despite his abysmal record as administrator of the church."

    Even if Benedict forces the Curia to be more forthcoming, he will not have caught up with many believers. Though their church is still run top-down, Catholics now carry the expectations of a kind of faithful citizenry rather than an obedient flock. Plans are afoot for thousands of abuse victims and their loved ones to travel to Rome in October for a "Reformation Day" to pressure the Vatican to act. McDaid, who met Benedict in Washington in 2008, is one of the prime organizers of the march on St. Peter's, and he envisions a massive democracy movement to transform Rome. "It's the people's church," he says. "We have to take it back." McDaid talks about priests and nuns who are raising travel money for "victims who can't rub two nickels together to get to Rome. This is way bigger than [Martin Luther's] Reformation."

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