Some in the Vatican had hoped Benedict XVI could use his trip to Portugal to begin to move past the constant questions about pedophile priests and see-no-evil bishops. But even before he arrived, Benedict may have offered the most significant comment to date, an acknowledgment that the Catholic Church's global clergy sex-abuse scandal is far too grave to be fixed by words alone. "The greatest persecution of the church doesn't come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sin within the church," the Pontiff said during his flight to Portugal for a four-day visit. "The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice."
Earlier this year, when the crisis spread into the heart of Europe and raised questions about the Pope's role in it, accusations of bad leadership and cover-ups were met by virulent countercharges from some of the church's most powerful leaders, who passed blame around and alluded to anti-Catholic conspiracies afoot. The still influential former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano used Easter Mass to denounce the "petty gossip" surrounding the Pope, while the current Secretary of State (the Holy See's equivalent to a Prime Minister), Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said clergy sex abuse was driven by homosexuality. Another top curia figure, Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher of the papal household, equated criticism of the church to anti-Semitism, angering both Jews and sex-abuse victims.
Benedict, who himself has been criticized for flashes of defensiveness and lack of responsiveness, said on Tuesday, May 11, that Rome's first step in turning the crisis around is for the church to stop blaming others and to look within. He said Catholicism had always suffered from internal problems but that with revelations of priests preying on children, "today we see it in a truly terrifying way."
After an initial long silence in the face of accumulating accusations, Benedict has appeared more decisive in recent weeks, speaking of the need for penance and meeting with victims (as he'd done on earlier trips) during his short stay last month on the island of Malta. The Vatican announced last week new restrictions on the Legionaries of Christ order after further revelations that its founder sexually abused seminarians, while several bishops responsible for covering up past cases of abuse have recently offered their resignations.
But the Pope's remarks Tuesday may be particularly significant and worth mining for both what they reveal about current Vatican power struggles and Benedict's broader legacy and the future of the church. Just last week, reports surfaced that Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn had used an off-the-record meeting with reporters to criticize Sodano, a rare showdown between two powerful "princes of the church." Schönborn, who was a theology student in the early 1970s under Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) and has remained close to him, reportedly attacked Sodano for his "petty gossip" comment and for allegedly blocking a 1990s investigation of alleged sexual abuse by Schönborn's predecessor in Vienna. The late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was forced to step down as archbishop of Vienna in 1995, died in 2003 without facing a canonical trial. Schönborn says Sodano blocked an attempt by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to further investigate the allegations against Groer.
Thus Benedict's "enemies within" comment arrives with the Schönborn-Sodano face-off still very much buzzing through the halls of St. Peter's, and it would seem to be a clear nod of approval for Schönborn. The internal stakes are high if Sodano and other powerful Rome players see the sequence of events over the past week as an orchestrated attempt to present the then Cardinal Ratzinger as the lone Cardinal trying to combat sex abuse within an otherwise corrupt and/or distracted Vatican hierarchy. Indeed, Schönborn had referred in the same supposedly off-the-record conversation (which neither he nor his office has contested) for the need to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia. Despite hopes from reformers at the beginning of his papacy, Benedict has largely avoided the battles that would have been necessary to bring about a true overhaul of the curia. And whether the fallout from the sex-abuse crisis will lead to housecleaning or just more infighting is unclear.
Still, even such palace intrigue is ultimately secondary in a crisis that will have lasting consequences no matter which Cardinal gains the upper hand or the Pope's favor. Despite the apparent good intentions, something remains unclear, even from Benedict's strong declaration Tuesday: What are the "sins," and for whom the "penitence" and "justice"? For while the rape and molestation of children by a single priest is terrifying indeed, many Catholics now believe that the bishops and Cardinals who let it happen and covered it up and deny their own responsibility are the Church's other enemy within.