National Catholic Register


What Should Pope Benedict Do?

BY Jimmy Akin

April 25-May 8, 2010 Issue | Posted 4/20/10 at 10:00 AM


The world owes an enormous debt to Pope Benedict XVI. Both before and since he became pope, he has done more than anyone else to deal effectively with priestly sexual abuse. Yet he is mercilessly smeared in the media with half-truths, distortions and falsehoods.

What should he do?

For years, many bishops dealt ineffectively with priests who molested children and adolescents. Many bishops acted in good faith, on advice that said these men could be cured and trusted. At that time, the consensus in the psychology community was that this was how they should be treated.

But their actions were insufficient, and scandal occurred in fits and starts in the 1980s and 1990s before mushrooming in the U.S. in 2002.

America is a trendsetter. It’s innovative, efficient and big. So when American lawyers and media hammered out a mutually profitable model for going after priestly sex offenders, you could bet the model would be used in other countries. Eventually, inevitably, and in just a few years, the priestly sex scandal would go global.

That’s what we’re witnessing now.

And it leads to the first thing Pope Benedict should do.

So far, the Holy See has dealt with the scandal on a country-by-country basis, approving national norms and pastoral plans where it appeared. These actions were needed, but the globalization of the scandal means that the Holy See needs to get out in front of the problem globally. In other words: It needs to put strict norms in place for the entire Church, not just particular nations. What those norms should be will require thought, but the American ones are a good place to start.

Good News

Some press accounts indicate that the Holy See is planning to release tough, new global norms this fall or sooner. This is unconfirmed, but the Vatican has said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is revising the current rules. That was in a document the Holy See put on its website to serve as a layman’s guide to how the CDF handles abuse cases.

If strict, new global norms are issued, it will be a positive step toward handling future allegations of abuse. But it will not address the handling of previous allegations, which is the core of the current firestorm.

Catholic journalist John Allen has perceptively written that America has a “microwave” culture, whereas Rome has a “crock-pot” culture. In America we want everything done yesterday. In Rome, they want to take their time — be cautious and thoughtful, not act hastily. It’s a substantial culture gap. And it’s why we’re now reading decades-old letters and memos from Rome that say, in effect, “This is going to take more time,” “Don’t act too quickly,” “We’ve got to observe due process,” “Is there another, less drastic solution?”

American media just doesn’t get that.

In its rush to judgment, the media has missed or misreported important facts. First, while Vatican culture and American expectations aren’t in-line with each other, there has already been substantial change. The CDF has become vastly more efficient in processing these cases, thanks to the efforts of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

Second, the seeming slowness of the past was not that different from what you see in civil courts. When the state prosecutes a pedophile, it can take a long time for the case to work its way through the courts.

Third, in the cases the media is currently discussing, actions had already been taken to keep the priests away from children. If you really care about children being put at risk, that is the important issue — not the significant but significantly symbolic act of “defrocking” a priest already pulled from regular ministry.

The fact the media has missed these facts suggests another thing Pope Benedict should do: Get the message out.

Posting the layman’s guide on the Vatican website was a good step in the right direction. The Holy See needs to establish message control for Vatican officials who need to do more than shift blame to the media. They need to tell the story of what happened from the Vatican perspective, and that means offering transparency. We’ve seen some of that, but more needs to be done.

The Holy See also could use advice from a seasoned media expert to establish a set of talking points so that Vatican officials don’t get off-message (where unfortunate gaffes have occurred).

Benedict Speaks

Ultimately, Pope Benedict needs to address the subject of priestly abuse directly. Until he personally addresses the topic, the media will be able to craft a narrative of papal “silence.”

The Pope spoke very frankly in his pastoral letter to Ireland, but this dealt only with Ireland. He needs to speak globally, addressing the history of the problem, including the Holy See’s perception and handling of it. In other words: He should undertake what John Paul II called a “purification of memory” — a frank look at the past so we can move beyond it.

This may require some courage, but Pope Benedict clearly has that in abundance.

It is clear, even at a distance, that the Church has changed its handling of this issue — and for the better. Bishops have a better understanding of the consequences of allowing abusive priests to remain in ministry, and the scope of the problem is better understood now that the CDF serves as a central office collecting abuse reports for the entire world.

And there has been a trajectory in papal statements, from condemning the actions of abusive priests to progressively more forceful condemnations of bishops who mishandled abusers. In his letter to the Irish, Pope Benedict was blistering both toward abusive priests and bishops who made mistakes. He also offered something unique.

To the victims of abuse, he wrote, “You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry.” This is the first time a pope has apologized for the scandal in his own name. But it was an apology addressed to victims in Ireland, not the whole world. Pope Benedict should go global with this as well.

Words Work

I hope the Holy Father will say something like, “In recent years, we in Rome have grown in our understanding of the scope of this problem and the means that are needed to combat it. I deeply regret that we did not arrive at this point sooner, and for that I offer my profound apologies to all who have been in any way affected.”

The Holy See is very aware he needs to phrase himself carefully, not just for pastoral reasons but also legal reasons. He has to avoid opening the Holy See up to prosecution in civil courts the world over. (This may be why we haven’t heard such an apology already.)

Undertaking this purification of memory will enable people of good will to say, “Okay. They ‘get’ it. They’ve taken responsibility for their actions and aren’t just making excuses.”

This will not satisfy people of ill will, but it will at least provide an answer to the charge that the Vatican is just trying to evade responsibility.

There are other things Pope Benedict could do: Meet with victims, call a special synod of bishops, have each diocese review its records regarding every living priest.

Ultimately, Christ’s Church — and Christ’s vicar — have nothing to fear from this kind of examination of the Church’s conscience.

Let us all keep Pope Benedict, and everyone in any way affected by this scandal, in our heartfelt prayers.

Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers, blogs at