NEW YORK — Pope Benedict XVI surprised everyone by using his pastoral visit to the United States to mark the end of the beginning of the sexual abuse crisis that has afflicted the Church in the United States.
“Benedict has not written a ‘period’ to the sexual abuse crisis, but a ‘semicolon,’” said George Weigel, papal biographer, indicating that Benedict thinks that there are other important things that need to be said some six years after the scandal first broke.
In looking ahead to the Holy Father’s visit, I wrote that Benedict has developed over many years a distinctive but successful media strategy.
He demonstrated it on this pastoral visit, seizing control of the sexual abuse issue from the beginning.
It was common during the visit to compare the media mastery of Pope John Paul II with the more detached, professorial style of his successor.
Yet Benedict showed on this trip — as he showed before in Poland, Germany and Turkey — that he can be most effective in bending the attention of the world press to his purposes.
Before the trip, the insistent question was whether or not Benedict would confront the sexual abuse issue. By addressing it at length on the plane before he even landed, and then returning to it at almost every major address, reporters began asking by the end of the Washington portion of the trip why the Pope was talking about it so much.
One New York Times reporter — a newspaper with little sympathy for the Catholic Church — mused that perhaps the Vatican strategy was to “talk it do death.”
Indeed, by the time the Holy Father made a passing reference to it at the final Mass at Yankee Stadium, it was no longer newsworthy.
The central gesture of the trip was the private meeting with sexual abuse victims in Washington on Thursday. Although kept off the official program to protect the victims from a media clamor beforehand, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio, had indicated several weeks ago that the meeting was likely.
Benedict’s reconciling gesture, coupled with his numerous statements, put him ahead of the story and exceeded the expectations of public opinion. According to sources close to Vatican planners, the sexual abuse scandal was already included in five papal addresses at least several weeks ago, but the decision to put it front and center while on the plane was Benedict’s own decision.
“The media is not making this the story; the Pope is,” said John Allen, author of a biography on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and a book on Pope Benedict.
Why did the Holy Father do so, knowing other key issues he was going to address — immigration, Catholic education, pro-life — would consequently be overshadowed?
Five reasons suggest themselves — four substantive and one stylistic.
First, Benedict himself has been particularly engaged with the issue of priestly misconduct, which he finds a tragic obstacle to the mission of the Church and the result of a weakening of priestly identity and discipline.
In 2001, almost a year before the sexual abuse scandal broke, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took charge of the sexual abuse file in Rome, insisting that the procedures used for the gravest Church crimes be used.
Second, after the 2002 scandal broke, Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in Rome was responsible for implementing the new protocols and penalties the American bishops had called for.
Consequently, he is more familiar with the gruesome details of the case files than almost anyone else in Rome — and also aware of the enormous reforms introduced since 2002. It is likely that he wanted to give personal expression to his horror, and to acknowledge the reform and reconciliation already under way in America.
Third, Benedict evidently judged that only by forthrightly engaging the scandal in his own person could he write that “semicolon” and add those subordinate clauses that situate the scandal of priestly abuse into a wider context.
He spoke of the need for the Church to teach more clearly Catholic doctrine, especially in regard to human sexuality, and the obligation of bishops to conduct themselves more as pastors and evangelists than administrators or managers; and he encouraged Catholics to challenge the culture of licentiousness in which sexual exploitation flourishes.
Fourth, Benedict is at heart a teacher. He knows how to take advantage of a teaching moment.
If there exists a legitimate preoccupation with grave priestly scandals, he thinks it opportune to speak of that in the language of grace and sin, wickedness and healing, justice and reconciliation, purification and holiness — moving beyond the secular language of law, liability and safety.
Indeed, a close examination of the several phrasings Benedict used on this trip manifests a determined attempt to speak of the scandal precisely in light of the Christian belief that no suffering, no matter how grave, is beyond the capacity of grace to heal.
A fifth reason is stylistic rather than substantive.
For those drafting the papal texts for this trip, a decision was clearly made not to organize the addresses topically, but rather to cover all principal topics in each major address, shifting the emphasis depending on the audience.
In all the major addresses, the Holy Father’s key themes were present — faith and reason, freedom and truth, doctrine and relativism, friendship with Christ, vocations, human rights and natural law, and, along with the others, the issue of clergy sexual abuse.
Therefore, it was not so much that the Holy Father decided to address the issue five times as that it was one of several issues that would be repeatedly addressed, modified for each successive audience.
For example, to the bishops Benedict highlighted one aspect of the crisis that is especially relevant and rarely discussed: namely, the lack of confidence many priests have in their bishops due to the sense that priests were punished harshly for the sins of bishops who were not disciplined.
“At this stage, a vital part of your task is to strengthen relationships with your clergy, especially in those cases where tension has arisen between priests and their bishops in the wake of the crisis,” the Holy Father said to the bishops.
In contrast, the Holy Father asked something different of the lay faithful at the Mass in Nationals Stadium. “Do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt,” Benedict said. “Love your priests, and … affirm them in the excellent work that they do.”
During the visit, both Vatican and stateside reporters could be heard discussing the why and the how of the papal message almost as much as the what.
The surprise of Benedict’s visit is that it will bear careful study as a potential model for media strategy.
Father Raymond J. De Souza
was the Register’s
from 1999 to 2002.