A version of this editorial will appear in the April 11 print edition, due to arrive to subscribers at the beginning of next week.
The pundits tell us that lots of people think that Pope Benedict should resign over the Church’s handling of clerical sex-abuse allegations.
They’re quoting authorities, of course. Mehmet Ali Agca, fresh out of prison for his failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, told journalists on March 29, “I want the Pope to resign.” Singer Sinead O’Connor, now remembered chiefly for having torn up a photo of John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992, has been calling for the Pope’s resignation since December. Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, labels him a “mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat” and calls for “justice” to be done on him. Minnesota lawyer Jeff Anderson, who has won a dozen multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the Church but says “it’s not about the money,” told Al-Jazeera that he hopes to “hear a jail door clang behind” the Pope.
But something funny would happen on the way to the conclave.
If Pope Benedict resigns tomorrow, and if the cardinals huddle in the Sistine Chapel two weeks later to choose his successor, it’s clear to us that something very surprising would happen: As the white smoke wafts over St. Peter’s Square, Joseph Ratzinger would be re-elected.
Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and The New York Times have fueled a media frenzy over two horrific cases that “must have” crossed Cardinal Ratzinger’s desk. Their shrillness obscures one simple fact: In neither the horrific Murphy case in Wisconsin nor the tragic Hullermann affair in Munich has a single shred of paper surfaced with Cardinal Ratzinger’s signature on it.
No evidence has been produced to disprove the Vatican’s statement that Cardinal Ratzinger knew nothing of the decision to reassign sexual predator Father Peter Hullermann to pastoral duties, and commentators from Father Raymond de Souza to George Weigel to the Register’s Jimmy Akin (March 30 and April 1) have demonstrated the blatant inaccuracy of the Times’ reporting on the Murphy case.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki told his clergy on March 30 that the Milwaukee Archdiocese — not Rome — mishandled the Murphy case. Father Thomas Brundage, who as judicial vicar was responsible for the internal Church trial that was still ongoing at the time of Father Murphy’s death, went public to say that “I have no reason to believe that [Cardinal Ratzinger] was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.”
Instead, according to Father Brundage, Pope Benedict “has been the most reactive and proactive of any international Church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors.”
Bishops worldwide are watching the headlines just as anxiously as anyone else. The Church has lost credibility, and they’re the ones who have the most at stake in restoring it. And they are all saying the same thing: The Churchman with the best track record and the most pastoral sensitivity in handling these cases is named Ratzinger.
But don’t take it from us. Listen to them.
“When [Ratzinger] was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” wrote Westminster Archbishop Vincent Nichols in The Times of London, “he led important changes made in Church law: the inclusion in canon law of Internet offenses against children, the extension of child abuse offenses to include the sexual abuse of all under 18, the case-by-case waiving of the statute of limitations and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders. He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words.”
Ratzinger “was the first one who, already as cardinal, felt the need for new and stricter rules, which there hadn’t been,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Milan’s Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview entitled, “True, Some Things Were Hushed Up, but Ratzinger Broke the Silence.” “The Pope never prohibited anyone from denouncing abusive priests and never gave orders to hide anything,” he said.
“The Holy Father has always testified to the same spirit of zero tolerance on the subject ... during each one of his responsibilities up to the papacy,” wrote Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet on his archdiocesan website last week. Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins echoed him in telling the priests of his archdiocese that “Pope Benedict has led the way in confronting this evil.” “The New York Times flatly got the story wrong,” Calgary Bishop Fred Henry wrote in a pastoral letter. “Readers may want to speculate on why.”
Bishop Patrick Dunn of Auckland, New Zealand, called the Pope’s letter to the Church in Ireland both “unprecedented” and “uncompromising.” “The Pope has met victims of abuse and expresses in this letter his deep sadness for what they have endured, his praise for their courage in coming forward, and his personal resolve to bring them justice and healing so far as is humanly possible.”
Does Ratzinger have undiscovered skeletons still in his own closet, as some in the media have opined? Bishop Edward Kmiec of Buffalo, N.Y., told the local CBS affiliate that he doesn’t think so. “I think he’s a man of honor, of integrity, of honesty. I think if he felt he had done something wrong, I think he’d admit to it.”
In fact, credit should go to Cardinal Ratzinger for helping the Church in America deal with abuse allegations and protect children better. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan got a 20-second standing ovation during his Palm Sunday homily for claiming just that. He made reference to last week’s report that only six credible cases of clerical sexual abuse were reported in the United States last year: “The dramatic progress that the Catholic Church in the United States has made — documented again just last week by the report made by independent forensic auditors — could never have happened without the insistence and support of the very man now being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo.”
The Italian and American bishops’ conferences have both sent public messages of support to the Holy Father, and the French bishops, not to be outdone, wrote their own March 26 letter to Pope Benedict “to tell you that we bear with you the pain of the slanders you suffer, and [to] renew our expression of communion and support.”
Any bishop could become a media darling overnight — and get his name floated as a possible John Paul III — by breaking ranks and criticizing the Holy Father. No one has. We think that’s revealing. Maybe Cardinal Ratzinger would have more support in a 2010 conclave than he did in 2005.
As Archbishop Dolan blogged last week, “As we now sadly realize, nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it.” There was a learning curve involved for everyone. But Ratzinger was ahead of the curve. Even five years ago, when the subject was still taboo in Roman circles or considered merely “an American problem,” he drew gasps for the exclamation he inserted into the Pope’s Way of the Cross meditations for Good Friday: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!”
Back to Father Brundage: “Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reined in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent.”
They all seem to agree with Damian Thompson of London’s Daily Telegraph: “Ratzinger was part of the solution, not the problem.”
So there’s a massive disconnect here. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes that “Benedict should go home to Bavaria,” while the world’s bishops think he should stay right where he is.