Apr 27, 2010

Pope Benedict: Reformer?

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

We've been hearing for weeks now that criticism of Pope Benedict is unfair because he's done more than anyone to address the problem of clerical abuse. As more details of his work both before and after becoming pope have surfaced, it's becoming clear that he has, indeed, been far more proactive on this issue than other church officials. The problem for the Vatican is that that's not saying much.

Throughout the most recent round of media coverage, there's been a serious mismatch between Pope Benedict's actual record on sex abuse -- as the senior Vatican official who took the crisis most seriously since 2001, and who led the charge for reform -- and outsider images of the pope as part of the problem.

While there are many reasons for that, a core factor is that the Vatican had the last ten years to tell the story of "Ratzinger the Reformer" to the world, and they essentially dropped the ball. That failure left a PR vacuum in which a handful of cases from the pope's past, where his own role was actually marginal, have come to define his profile.

One has to ask, why didn't the Vatican tell Ratzinger's story?

At least part of the answer, I suspect, is because to make Ratzinger look good, they'd have to make others look bad -- including, of course, Castrillón, as well as other top Vatican officials. Lurking behind that concern is a deeper one, which is that to salvage the reputation of Benedict XVI it might be necessary to tarnish that of Pope John Paul II.

As discussed Castrillon Hoyos has directly implicated the former pope in efforts to protect sexually abusive priests from legal and other consequences. More and more it looks like Cardinal Ratzinger maneuvered carefully and deftly to buck a system intent on ignoring the problem when possible and concealing it when not.

Today's New York Times examines the case of Cardianl Hans Hermann Groër. Cardinal Ratzinger had been instrumental in maneuvering him into his position as archbishop, favoring him over a more popular candidate, only to turn against him when abuse allegations came to light.

Defenders of Benedict cite his role in dealing with Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna as evidence that he moved assertively, if quietly, against abusers. They point to the fact that Cardinal Groër left office six months after accusations against him of molesting boys first appeared in the Austrian news media in 1995. The future pope, they say, favored a full canonical investigation, only to be blocked by other ranking officials in the Vatican.

Says the Times:

There are indications that Benedict had a lower tolerance for sexual misconduct by elite clergy members than other top Vatican officials.

Am I alone in finding that statement shocking? These are priests who are supposed to be celibate; something on the which the Catholic Church remains unyielding. Yet there seems to be a lot of winking and nodding at such violations among even some of the highest placed officials. Worse, many of those indiscretions involve molesting children and other unwilling victims. But wink and nod they do.

One such startling example is that of Bishop Burt Krenn, the favorite whose appointment had been blocked in favor of Groër.

Father Krenn, who became a bishop in 1987, also had a reputation for being a loose cannon. In 2004, he had to retire early after dismissing the discovery at his seminary of a large cache of child pornography and images of young priests having sex as “boyish pranks.”

One wonders if he would have been prematurely retired for such comments before the change in political climate in the church; a change for which it would appear we have largely to thank Pope Benedict. I'm guessing not.

Such winking and nodding also went on in Groër's diocese before media coverage forced action.

The rumors surrounding Cardinal Groër’s transgressions went beyond the circle of those who suffered at his hands. Josef Votzi, the journalist who broke the scandal in 1995 in the magazine Profil, is another Hollabrunn alumnus and said that even among staff members of the Vienna Archdiocese he interviewed when Father Groër was named archbishop, his history was “an open secret.” 

It is against this backdrop that Cardinal Ratzinger became radicalized.

In retrospect, the Burresi and Maciel cases crystallized a remarkable metamorphosis in Joseph Ratzinger vis-à-vis the sexual abuse crisis. As late as November 2002, well into the eruption in the United States, he seemed just another Roman cardinal in denial. Yet as pope, Benedict XVI became a Catholic Elliot Ness -- disciplining Roman favorites long regarded as untouchable, meeting sex abuse victims in both the United States and Australia, embracing "zero tolerance" policies once viewed with disdain in Rome, and openly apologizing for the carnage caused by the crisis.

Yes, in that environment, the slow, cautious moves he's making on this issue are radical. Hard to believe but true. 

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