Fred McGinness on the Pope’s Sex-Abuse Scandal

Monday, April 19, 2010 - 12:00

Questioning Authority recently asked MHC history professor Frederick McGinness to comment on the pope’s knowledge of and involvement in the cover-up of priest sexual abuse cases worldwide. Here’s what he had to say.

QA: New information continues to come to the public's attention about the extent of the pope's knowledge of and involvement in the covering up of priest sex abuse cases. Specifically, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he allegedly allowed a German priest to continue working despite his known history of sex abuse. In addition, he failed to take action in the case of a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 young boys in his parish. Is it time for the pope to resign?

FM: Even though the church teaches that moral reform begins only by acknowledging wrongdoing—that confession of guilt must precede the amendment of sin—do not expect the pope to accept that burden of responsibility. Evidence suggests that Joseph Ratzinger knew of sex abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich and Freising, as early as 1980. After 1981, as cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office that grew out of the Holy Office of the Inquisition), he came to be known as the pope’s enforcer of church discipline and archconservative positions. In reviewing procedures dealing with abusive priests, he sought to exert central control from the Vatican over cases once dealt with locally by bishops or archbishops. This centralized, but secret, review by Rome finally began in 2001, though it seems other cases had come to his attention before this.

But let’s look at things locally for a moment. On April 11, Father James Scahill of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, repeated his call for the pope’s resignation in an impassioned sermon denouncing abuse and demanding a thorough church housecleaning. The diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, denounced it: “It in no way represents the position of the bishop. We find his statements to be unfortunate.” Expect more of the same. The most recent revelation of Ratzinger’s direct involvement (his resistance to the laicization requested by a convicted abuser, Stephen Kiesle, in Oakland, California) was dismissed as a “form letter” by the pope’s spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi. More revelations may come, but the Vatican—and most bishops—is likely to continue to deny or downplay the pope’s involvement, minimize the charges as “petty gossip,” and attack the press as prejudicial.

This strategy of denial and delay assumes that the public will lose interest, as time passes—that the church has time on its side, which is not an idle assumption. After all, the church goes back to antiquity; it is the oldest continuing complex organization in the world, and as an institution knows how to survive—and has done so for nearly 2,000 years. The church embodies tradition; it is tradition—hierarchical, conservative, and “handed-down” (tradere) from one generation, one century, one millennium, to the next. The sheer weight of this tradition is taken as proof of its transcendent virtue.

Though there is no rule preventing a pope from resigning, the culture of the supreme pontiffs does not sanction it, and certainly not in response to public outcry. This tradition is sustained by the early Christian argument that as rulers, bishops are accountable only to God. This is divine ordinance. “Rulers” (rectores), or “pastors,” must answer for the souls of their “subjects,” or “sheep,” in their charge, as well as their own, a perilous burden that presumably offsets the privileges and immunities accompanying their office. Rulers who hold the “keys to the kingdom” rightly judge subjects and must not be judged by them. Even wicked rulers are still God’s vicars and dispense punishments or rewards according to His will. It’s up to God to judge them.

The extreme of these traditions places spiritual leaders and the church above and immune from interference from secular rulers and laws of the state, an issue never fully resolved in the Investiture Controversy of the Middle Ages—“the mother of all battles” between church and state. Pope Benedict’s actions, like those of his predecessor John Paul II (d. 2005), reflect this tradition of struggle. The Vatican has dealt with the pedophilia of priests as a sin, not a crime. Rather than having bishops turn sex abusers over to the police for abusing minors and breaking our criminal laws, Vatican policy and canon law presumably aim to save souls, both of the criminals, by giving them (repeated) chances to mend their ways in different parishes, and of the greater congregation, by protecting the church from the scandal of laicizing priests, as well as the negative publicity of wrongdoing. The argument that the greater good of all Catholics is served by preserving the church from scandal has encouraged a culture of secrecy akin to the Mafia’s code of omertà. (In fact, victims of sex abuse once had to take solemn promises of silence!) This stonewall of silence is deaf to calls for accountability and reform. Against this background, the pope’s professed concern for the justice due victims seems naïvely patronizing.

Rarely have popes resigned, though some should have, such as Alexander VI (1492-1503), whose fathering of—some say—over 30 children was the least of his peccadillos. Dante condemned as cowardice the resignation— “the great refusal” —of pope Celestine V (1294-96), an aged and bewildered monk, elected amidst factions feuding in thirteenth-century Rome; but his resignation nonetheless was considered as valid and lawful. And in 1415, during the Great Schism between Rome and Avignon, the Roman pope Gregory XII resigned, leaving only two other claimants to Peter’s Chair (Benedict XIII in Avignon and John XXIII, the Roman Antipope). As is clear, the papacy has always had a political dimension, and resignation is a legitimate option.

QA: The Catholic Church has been embroiled in the scandal of priest sexual abuse for several years. With these new revelations about the pope's involvement, will the Church at the highest levels finally take this matter seriously and will meaningful change occur?

FM: It’s important to understand how this ancient institution adapts to, or resists, changing historical circumstances. In general, the laity support reform; some are increasingly vocal. In 2002, for example, a new organization was formed in the basement of a rectory in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Now 30,000 strong, The Voice of the Faithful has modest demands for a full and open forum on the history and handling of sex abuse cases, and seeks a substantive role in the future direction of the Church’s personnel, financial, and operational decisions. American bishops collectively have responded unsympathetically at best; the Vatican, as might be expected, has ignored the group.

It is not surprising that the church wants to keep the lid on even modest demands for change; once opened, who knows what will emerge from Pandora’s box? The scandals have worked to undermine the credibility of bishops and priests, who claim authority in teaching “faith and morals.” Many church members express an outrage more strident than The Voice of the Faithful, feeling betrayed, even duped, by authorities they once revered and obeyed implicitly. This is a dangerous escalation, because once the mystique of the ruler evaporates, revealing that “the emperor has no clothes,” anger can emerge, and a contempt so fierce, that challenges to authority end in disbelief.

An honest examination of pedophilia cannot be separated from broader questions of the regulation of sexuality as a fundamental exercise of the church’s authority and power over individuals in the matter of clerical celibacy and women’s roles in the church. It is like pulling the stray yarn that causes the whole “garment of faith” to unravel. Given that these issues were aired last time in the Protestant Reformation, the church’s hierarchy is unlikely to revisit them. They appreciate the inherent dangers of debate and can declare the problems long settled.

Like his predecessor John Paul II (d. 2005), Benedict XVI believes that it is not the church’s mission to change and accommodate people. It follows the old saying uttered on the eve of the Protestant Reformation: “People are not to change the holy things of the church but be changed by them.” Likewise people must change themselves to meet the moral standards demanded by the church because these standards are absolute and transcendent. This is “justice,” as they define it, meaning “the proper order of things.” It’s also tradition. It’s nonnegotiable.

QA: The Catholic Church has been losing members due to its unwavering stance on homosexuality, abortion, and women in the priesthood. Is the public outrage over the latest reports of priest sex abuse going to significantly endanger the Church's viability?

FM: The extent of this scandal is worldwide and staggering: the U.S, Canada, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Australia, and Brazil. Given the “snowball effect” of disclosures, more may come to light.

The erosion of membership in the Roman Catholic Church is difficult to judge, but declining numbers also affect schools, hospitals, and assorted agencies of social welfare. A recent poll found 19 percent of German Catholics disaffected; but Ireland and the U.S. are perhaps more affected, and we have as yet no polling data. Any decline in membership is serious, however, because it affects future generations: Catholic parents rear Catholic children; converts are few. Beginning with John Paul II, the church turned its attention to the developing world, especially to Africa and Latin America, but also China because secular Western Europe and most parts of North and South America show little potential for future growth. Still, the Roman church can scarcely ignore the Western countries that have been its historical foundation.

The financial costs are astonishing, and again, likely to increase. Donations are down, and the cost of setting lawsuits in the U.S. is estimated at “well over 2 billion USD,” according to Der Spiegel. Several dioceses have been seriously weakened financially. Reuters reports that the Boston diocese has paid out $85 million and closed 60 churches, while the dioceses of San Diego, Tucson, Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Davenport, Fairbanks, and Wilmington have declared bankruptcy.

Without serious change, the church will not be viable to many people, at least in its present form. Unchanged, as it is likely to remain, the church will be smaller, poorer, and, we might expect, very, very conservative.

QA: The papacy has suffered many bouts of corruption and scandals in its long history. Can you put this scandal into a broader historical perspective?

FM: As devastating as this scandal is, many historians think the nadir of the papacy was in the ninth century, the era of the mythical Pope Joan and the legendary House of Theophylact. Rival families fought for control of the papacy. In one notorious incident, one pope exhumed the former pope for assorted crimes, put his corpse on trial, and invalidated his decrees by chopping off the fingers he used to perform blessings. And as mentioned earlier, the present scandal does revisit the Investiture Controversy of the Middle Ages in its apparent attempts to assert the preeminence of the church’s canon law over secular law and keep clergy immune from secular prosecution. This is why king Henry II (1154-1189) quarreled with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket (d. 1170). Becket insisted that criminal priests were subject only to the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, and Henry was determined to see all criminals, regardless of clerical status, made subject to the laws of his kingdom. Today, we would probably make Henry the hero, and spurn Becket, whom the church honors as martyr.

Still more arresting are comparisons with the Reformation era of the sixteenth century. In challenging the papacy’s claims to authority, Luther and other Protestants began to question its regulation of daily life. They recognized that clerical celibacy was not biblical, but rather a policy instituted by the church for the purpose, among other reasons, of defending its properties from alienation and securing the dependency and obedience of the clergy to authorities higher up, eventually those in Rome. As I suggested earlier, an honest investigation of pedophilia cannot be separated from the practice of clerical celibacy, nor from attitudes and arguments that prevent women from officiating at the liturgy because they do not bear “the likeness of Christ.”

This is, to be sure, a critical moment in the church’s history, and an ancient saying is very appropriate here—“the church must always be reformed” (ecclesia semper reformanda). Reformations of the past have often been triggered by the most unlikely individuals and unexpected events; it should now be interesting to see what’s in store.

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