Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and the child sex abuse scandals

I would like to never mention the Catholic Church and child sex abuse again. However, the issue has thrust itself back into the limelight. While Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich in 1980, there are reports from the New York Times that he received a memo recommending that a priest who had reportedly molested several children be transferred. Archbishop Ratzinger denies having any knowledge of the recommendation to transfer the priest, which was approved by his subordinates. Indeed, another NYT article describes him as a theologian more than a manager. He may not have paid attention.

This may illustrate a leadership problem with then-Archbishop Ratzinger, although he wasn't alone in not giving this problem the seriousness it deserved:

Andreas Englisch, a leading German Vatican expert and the author of several books on Benedict, said that Cardinal Ratzinger “was never interested in bureaucratic stuff,” and noted that when he was first asked to be archbishop of Munich, he considered turning down the post because he did not want to work as “a manager.” In his autobiography, Benedict described taking the post as “an infinitely difficult decision.”

That said, as Archbishop, he was ultimately responsible for his archdiocese, including the personnel matters of the priests under his authority. Instead, he arguably abdicated that authority.

Mr. Englisch, the Vatican expert, said that transferring a problem priest was “such a difficult decision” that it would necessarily have required his opinion.

“I think the guy who handled it would have gone to his archbishop and said, ‘This case of transferring a priest is not common, and we should really have an eye on him,’ ” Mr. Englisch said. Referring to Benedict, he added, “I don’t think that he really knew the details; I don’t think he was really interested in the details.”

“As they say in the legal profession, you either knew or you should have known,” said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, who once worked at the Vatican Embassy in Washington and became an early and well-known whistle-blower on sexual abuse in the church. “The archbishop is the unquestioned authority in that diocese. The buck stops there.”

The Archdiocese of Munich did as every other Roman Catholic diocese at the time was doing: they cloaked the problem in obscure language and transferred the priest quietly. In many modern churches, that priest would likely be defrocked. We already knew that sexual abuse by priests had been widespread and had been covered up. I would not have mentioned this, because I would like to give the Catholic Church the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are attempting to improve their safeguards of priests who are sexually abusive. However, what is galling is that the Vatican has offered apologies but no consequences. In a normal organization, heads would have rolled by now. Furthermore, the Pope has been on the defensive, saying that he won't be "intimidated". The Catholic Church is giving the impression that it is more concerned about people going after their money and about avoiding scandal.

Now, money does weird things to people. There will always be someone after the church's money. However, their first priority should be to fix the problem and to prove to the public that this will not happen again. The rest will sort itself out. What does it tell the public if they're more concerned about protecting themselves?

The Catholic Church needs to remember that priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope are all accountable to lay Catholics, and in fact, to the general global public. Jesus did not lord it over his followers, he washed their feet instead. All churches and clergy have leadership roles in society, but they are not kings - and yet the magisterium is acting like they were crowned kings over humankind.

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