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Penance and the pope

May 23, 2006

EVEN SOME OF HIS MOST heartfelt admirers acknowledge that the late Pope John Paul II was slow to comprehend the magnitude of the harm caused by priests who sexually abused young people. The same cannot be said of Pope Benedict XVI after the pontiff's disciplining of a Mexican priest favored by John Paul.

On Friday, the Vatican announced that 86-year-old Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of a conservative order known as the Legion of Christ, had been ordered to renounce any public ministry and devote himself to "prayer and penance" after an investigation of allegations that he had molested several seminarians. A papal spokesman said Maciel would be spared a church tribunal because of his advanced age and delicate health.

The Vatican statement falls short of the clear-cut condemnation that some victims' advocates would have preferred. That allowed the Legion to declare on its website that, while Maciel accepted the discipline with "faith, complete serenity and tranquillity of conscience," he had "declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way."

Still, for all its circumlocution, the Vatican statement leaves no doubt that church investigators found merit in the allegations. It thus contrasts dramatically with the way accusations of abuse against another prominent cleric were handled under John Paul.

In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer resigned as archbishop of Vienna on the eve of John Paul II's visit to Austria. But it was left to observers to connect the dots between Groer's ouster and widely reported allegations that earlier in his life he had abused students at a Catholic boarding school. In accepting Groer's resignation, the pope thanked him for "loyal and magnanimous service." (Later, the pope stripped Groer of other church duties, and Groer's successor apologized for his predecessor's actions.)

The announcement of the sanctions against Maciel came in the same week as the pope's appointment of the Most Rev. Donald Wuerl as the new archbishop of Washington. In his previous diocese of Pittsburgh, Wuerl successfully challenged a Vatican decision to reinstate a priest accused of molesting minors. It was another sign that this pope recognizes the need to deal forthrightly with what he once called the "filth" of clergy sexual abuse.

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