Pope Benedict XVI’s latest apology for the emerging global scandal of child abuse by predatory priests — an issue that the Roman Catholic Church should have engaged years ago — is strong on forgiveness but far short of the full accountability that Catholics need for repairing their damaged church.
With the scandal spreading across Europe, Benedict apologized to Irish Catholics last week for the “sinful and criminal” sexual abuse of thousands of children across decades. But he made no mention of the need to discipline diocesan leaders most responsible for shielding hundreds of priests from criminal penalties by moving them from parish to parish to continue their crimes.
The pope’s apology fell short not only for Catholics in Ireland, but for those in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, where hundreds of new allegations are emerging to be investigated by a Vatican office that has but 10 workers to do the job. Benedict’s promise of a special Vatican inquiry into the Irish scandal came across as too little, too late, considering it took two scathing investigations by the Irish government to prod the Vatican into action. One of these found church officials were able to convince Dublin police to join in their cover-up.
German Catholics are questioning Benedict’s role nearly 30 years ago when, as archbishop of Munich, he allowed the transfer of a priest molester. That priest had managed to remain at work until last week when he was suspended as the scandal grew with news media scrutiny. There are also questions about Benedict’s directive as a Vatican cardinal in 2001 that bishops worldwide were to keep pedophilia investigations secret under threat of ex-communication.
The Vatican insists this was to protect the innocent and never intended to encourage what has been established as a widespread failure by church officials to alert police to the criminal abuse of children. As pope, Benedict emphasized the duty to tell civil authorities, but church secrecy has been a hallmark defense by numerous dioceses that have fought in the courts against a full accounting to pedophilia victims.
It was hard to see how Vatican officials did not draw the lessons of the grueling scandal in the United States, where more than 700 priests were dismissed over a three-year period. But then we read Laurie Goodstein’s disturbing report in The Times on Thursday about how the pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of the children. The report illuminated the kind of behavior the church was willing to excuse to avoid scandal.
The American church’s investigative board of laity cautioned “there must be consequences” for prelates who orchestrated cover-ups. This has not been fulfilled, even though the board criticized management of rogue priests by Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest diocese, and Edward Egan, the former leader of the New York archdiocese. The pope’s expression of “shame and remorse” for the Irish scandal is not to be doubted. But what is most urgently needed was well described by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — “truth and clarity about everything that took place.”
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