Some Catholics had hoped for some sort of "mea culpa," with the man born Joseph Ratzinger speaking about what role he may have played, as he rose in the hierarchy to become Pope, in not affording children the best protection they could have had. Nevertheless, Benedict XVI's plea for forgiveness on Friday may have been the most public and symbolically significant attempt by the pontiff to redress the sex crimes committed by priests over the years against children. "We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," the Pope said, speaking in St. Peter's Square before a gathering of the world's Catholic clergy.
Though Benedict has used such language before including a letter written to the Irish faithful in March, and a statement to reporters on his way to Portugal last month pronouncing them in a homily before a momentous gathering of priests at the headquarters of Catholicism gave it unprecedented weight. Practically speaking from the throne of St. Peter, Benedict's statement came as close as theology and tradition could risk to an admission of error. Yet, the words, and indeed the setting, show the complexity and perhaps, the limits of the Pope himself being able to repair the damage of decades of abuse by priests and cover-ups by their bishops.
The business of running Catholicism is built around its ancient hierarchy, a global network of bishops, headed by the Bishop of Rome the Pope who is absolute monarch, Vicar of Christ and spiritual successor of Peter. On Friday, victims groups and some other Catholics were hoping to hear something personal from the Pope. When he was the Archbishop of Munich in 1980, a pedophile priest was allowed to quickly work again in his ministry. That priest would later be convicted of abusing other boys. Later, when he became a senior Vatican official, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had a mixed record. He seemed to understand the problem more quickly than most of his fellow Cardinals in Rome, but also failed to respond promptly to at least two requests to defrock priests who had repeatedly raped children. But no mea culpa a personal admission of fault was forthcoming from Benedict. He may not have wanted to risk undermining the spiritual authority of the office of Pope by focusing on his own past mistakes.
Ultimately the scandal is bigger than Benedict. "Dear brothers in the priestly ministry..." was how the address began to 15,000 members of the clergy who had come to Rome to mark the end of a special "Year of the Priest," meant to focus extra attention on those men in the trenches and parishes working day-in, day-out with the faithful. That he addressed them as his "brothers" was a reminder that, once ordained, Catholic clerics who rise to bishop, cardinal and even papal status always remain priests of the Church.
Choosing the occasion to make his remarks was sensitive enough. Indeed, some priests had expressed concern that Benedict would use a gathering meant to encourage priests in their ministries to highlight the pedophile scandal. Most observers note that the scandal which had exploded into a global crisis the past four months as cases have hit the Church's cultural homeland in Europe, and even the Pope's own former archdiocese in Germany is fundamentally an indictment of cover-up and malfeasance by the leadership, both local bishops and top administrators in the Vatican. And though he spoke Friday of the need for the Church to do a better job at selecting the right men for the clergy, and to "make every effort to accompany priests along their journey," Benedict made no mention of the bishops' role in the scandal.
Of course there may be another opportunity for the Pope to address the past mistakes of the hierarchy, and his "brother bishops." Already, the Church has recently seen an unprecedented round of resignations and early retirements of bishops with a link to sex abuse cases.
Victims' groups were unsatisfied with Benedict's words Friday, saying they want to see more accountability, as well as promises from the Pope of stringent internal rules similar to the "zero tolerance" standards institued by American bishops in the wake of the 2002 U.S. sex abuse scandal. But the middle of Mass, even in the heart of the Vatican, is usually not the place to detail new policy. That may emerge later. Indeed, given the papacy's relative speed in addressing the crisis since Easter, it may even come sooner.
One priest in Rome said Catholic clergy have been living with the crisis for nearly a decade since revelations of abuse in Boston in 2001 began to unfold. Neither the "Year of the Priest" celebrations nor any mea culpa from the Pope will undo what has happened. "You live with hope and try to do your best. It's all been demoralizing for clergy in varying degrees for awhile. But one's own life and ability to do good is not determined by this," says the priest. "We all know the tragedy and depth of what has happened. But in the face of that reality, we also know there's loads of work to be done."