Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Pedophile Scandal
Ross Douthat has a recent, topical column on the current Pope and his troubled Church in the New York Times, "The Better Pope" -- meaning better than Pope John Paul II. Douthat acknowledges that Benedict is not untouched by the scandal over pedophile priests, but he has some kind words to say about Benedict as reformer, a role that I was unfamiliar with:
[T]here's another story to be told about John Paul II and his besieged successor. The last pope was a great man, but he was also a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character.We might find these these things admirable -- these actions by Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI -- even if too little, too late, given the dimensions of the pedophile scandal, but these are things that we should also know and consider in arriving at a judgment on the current Pope.
The church's dilatory response to the sex abuse scandals was a testament to these weaknesses. So was John Paul's friendship with the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The last pope loved him and defended him. But we know now that Father Maciel was a sexually voracious sociopath. And thanks to a recent exposé by The National Catholic Reporter's Jason Berry, we know the secret of Maciel's Vatican success: He was an extraordinary fund-raiser, and those funds often flowed to members of John Paul's inner circle.
Only one churchman comes out of Berry's story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. Berry recounts how Ratzinger lectured to a group of Legionary priests, and was subsequently handed an envelope of money "for his charitable use" [opera carita, "an elegant way of giving a bribe"]. The cardinal "was tough as nails in a very cordial way," a witness said, and turned the money down.
This isn't an isolated case. In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church's haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel's conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.
Some might argue that the crucial questions about Pope Benedict XVI are like those posed about President Nixon during the Watergate scandal: "What did he know, and when did he know it?"
But I think that there's a third question to be asked: "When did he have the power to act upon what he knew?"
He certainly knew something about the case of Reverend Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, for "[i]n 1998, eight ex-Legionaries filed a canon law case to prosecute . . . [Delgollado] in then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's tribunal." But little happened for six years. According to Jason Berry's report, "Ratzinger told a Mexican bishop that the Maciel case was a 'delicate' matter and questioned whether it would be 'prudent' to prosecute at that time."
That sounds horrible to us looking back at the extent of the pedophile scandal that is shaking the Catholic Church, but consider this:
Maciel had the staunch support of three pivotal figures: [Cardinal Angelo] Sodano[, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006]; Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; and Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Polish secretary of John Paul. During those years, Sodano pressured Ratzinger not to prosecute Maciel, as NCR previously reported.A generous reading of Ratzinger's inaction is that he was biding his time until he had gathered the power to act effectively. I suspect that we will learn more on this issue in the next several months.
A less generous reading of inaction on this pedophile issue might prompt one to pose a fourth question: "Why didn't somebody of importance see the problem clearly, recognize the need to act, and step outside the ecclesiastical bureaucracy to cry 'J'accuse'?"
Short answer: That calls for more courage than most of us have.