How Benedict Should Handle the Abuse Scandal

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Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

A Vatican official — a Spanish priest — whom I like and respect told me that as he walked down the street this week, someone shouted "Porco!" ("Pig!") at him from a passing car. Other priests say they can no longer hug children in their parishes. This is just one of the unfortunate outcomes of the sex-abuse controversy that has enveloped the Roman Catholic Church.

I am convinced that the priest-sex-abuse issue is going to continue to be a major story — and it should be. Some supporters of Pope Benedict XVI note that sex abuse of children is by no means a problem afflicting only the Catholic Church and have alleged media bias in the coverage of the issue. In fact, the Vatican singled out the New York Times for such coverage. But most journalists and non-Catholics derive no satisfaction at all from seeing these events unfold. The horror at the victims' suffering drives the narrative. But this is also a tale of human failings — both moral and administrative — by some who may otherwise be decent people, causing grave damage to a worldwide church that does good and offers comfort to millions.

There is admittedly both confusion and mean-spiritedness in some corners of the press and the Web. But the Pope's own alleged managerial failings in the past make this a story that cannot be ignored on the front pages of newspapers. The historical fascination with the Pontifex Maximus means guaranteed media coverage in bad times and good. One need only recall both John Paul II's funeral and Benedict's 2008 U.S. trip to remember the positive media frenzy that accompanies whoever wears the shoes of the fisherman.

Benedict's defenders are mostly right that as a senior Vatican Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger was ahead of his colleagues in Rome in responding to the crisis, and that as Pope, he has said and done the right things, including his unprecedented meeting with sex-abuse victims on that U.S. trip. But Benedict's leadership on the sex-abuse crisis — and beyond — now hinges on an earlier chapter in his career. In 1980, an admitted child-molester priest was transferred to the Munich archdiocese, which was then headed by Ratzinger. Though Church officials say the future Pope personally approved of his transfer to Munich for psychiatric counseling, they insist Ratzinger knew nothing of the green light for the abusive priest — who would eventually be convicted of other sex crimes — to return to his pastoral duties just weeks later.

Whether or not the Vatican's version of the facts is entirely convincing, papal "plausible deniability" — as communicated by aides — is not the kind of leadership this crisis requires. What happened in Munich, with or without Ratzinger's direct knowledge, is exactly the sort of inbred administrative failing that propelled a similar scandal in Boston nine years ago, which the Pope himself referred to in his recent letter to the Irish faithful.

There is a public expectation in Western democracies for a full accounting. And it is a sentiment that faithful Catholics share especially because of their piety. Jordan Bonfante, who covered the Vatican for TIME during the late 1970s, has been a rabbinical guide as I, a secular Jew, have covered the same beat in more recent years. In a rare quiet moment in 2005 when we together covered the period between the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI, Bonfante, a practicing Catholic, told me what continues to draw him to his faith. "Catholicism has a great formula," he said. "It starts with the idea that we are all sinners who must try our best to be good. And when we fail, it gives us a way to repent and cleanse ourselves of our failures."

It seems clear to me, from what I know about both the media and Catholicism, that Benedict's experience in Munich actually affords the Pope a singular opportunity to truly begin the healing and renewal on this epochal crisis. But it requires that the Pope himself turn to that gesture that stands at the heart of Catholicism: penance.

How does he go about this? A Jesuit source of mine suggested that the Pope could have washed the feet of sex-abuse victims — instead of priests — at the traditional Holy Thursday rite at St. Peter's. Others have mentioned an encyclical on the crisis. But either would miss the point. Rather than state another mea culpa for the sins of the abusers, the Pope must simply and publicly seek forgiveness for himself — and other bishops — for what we might call the sins of ignorance and denial and administrative malfeasance that some critics say border on the criminal.

Some have incorrectly worried that personally confessing such shortcomings could undermine papal infallibility. But that doctrine refers only to the dogma of divine revelation. Others wonder if Church officials are worried about the effect of such a statement in opening up the Vatican to potential lawsuits. Well, if the lawyers are calling the shots on this, the Pope is in even worse shape than we thought.

It is in the interest of his Church and his papacy that Benedict take responsibility for what happened under his watch in Munich. One can only imagine the power of the Holy Father asking forgiveness for his own sins, however small compared with those of the main perpetrators, in what has largely been a decades-long failure of leadership. At that point, Benedict might just make his mark on Church history as the eternal guide for personal accountability. And when other cases come up — and they will — we in the media can start to talk about what has improved in combating sex abuse, what Benedict has gotten right and indeed the fact that these problems exist elsewhere.

But will Benedict do it? A few weeks after the white smoke had signaled the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be Pope Benedict XVI, I got a rather urgent call from my colleague Jordan. He was trying to get a better handle on his new spiritual leader and wanted to know what Benedict's stance had been on John Paul II's pleas back in 2000 for forgiveness of the Church's sins over the past millennia toward women, minorities and heretics. My sources, I told him, always said that Ratzinger had been skeptical about such public declarations, feeling they could stain the Church as a whole. "I see," Jordan said with clear disappointment.