Pope Benedict XVI waves from his popemobile in Rome. During his papacy,… (Andrew Medichini, Associated…)
Time and again in his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against the scourge of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, using words that would have been scarcely imaginable by his predecessors.
It was, he said, "evil," "gravely immoral," "a terrifying sign of the times." He spoke of the "deep shame" and "humiliation" the scandal had brought on the Catholic Church. He apologized to victims.
Not long into his tenure, Benedict essentially banished an influential Mexican priest, Father Marcial Maciel, who had long been suspected of sexually abusing seminarians and boys in his care and had fathered at least three children. Benedict ordered investigations into sexual abuse and issued guidelines in 2010 that made it easier to punish abusive priests.
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For all that, there were those who were ultimately disappointed by the pope's record on the issue. Benedict never acquiesced to demands that he open Vatican records to outside scrutiny and almost never took action against those just below him — his bishops and cardinals — who failed to protect children from abusive priests.
"The reality is that he took a number of important steps to address the scandal of sexual abuse in the clergy," said David Gibson, a reporter for Religion News Service who is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World." But, Gibson said, Benedict's "failure to hold members of the hierarchy responsible is really going to be the lasting legacy of this pope in most people's minds."
Child sexual abuse has been the most prominent issue facing the Catholic Church in the United States in recent years and gradually has taken on urgency in other parts of the world, especially Ireland and Germany. No figure in the church has been in a better position to understand the dimensions of the problem than Benedict, who was the Vatican's point man on sexual abuse cases before he succeeded the late Pope John Paul II.
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As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he served as head of the church's doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he insisted on centralizing all handling of sexual abuse by clergy. For that alone, his defenders say, he deserves credit, since it reflected a more serious attitude toward the problem than the Catholic leadership had previously demonstrated.
"As head of the CDF ... he did very much become a champion for moving on this crisis," said Matthew Bunson, coauthor of "Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal."
As pope, Bunson said, Benedict took effective actions, such as closing loopholes in canon law and pushing the worldwide church to adopt protections for children that were put in place by American bishops in 2002. Those reforms reduced the incidence of clerical abuse, he said.
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"I would argue that the success of the pope from the standpoint of law and procedure ... is very much quantifiable," Bunson said.
Msgr. Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said Benedict's experience as cardinal made him determined to combat sexual abuse as pope.
"I think he was much more aggressive on the issue of sex abuse than was John Paul II," Wister said. As head of the doctrinal office, "he was given all these accusations and judgments when there was a church trial.... That meant he had to read all this stuff, and he became disgusted."
As evidence of a new attitude Benedict fostered, Wister pointed to the recent letter by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles stripping his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, of public duties in the archdiocese after documents were released detailing Mahony's efforts to keep information about pedophile priests out of the hands of authorities.
"It's hard to imagine that Archbishop Gomez's comments about Cardinal Mahony were not cleared by the Vatican at the highest levels, and that's unprecedented," Wister said.
Critics, though, say that both as cardinal and later as pope, Benedict failed to act quickly or strongly enough on sexual abuse cases, despite knowledge of the depth of the problem and some bishops' practice of hiding sexual abuse cases from civil authorities.
In one notorious case in the 1990s, his doctrinal office declined to defrock Father Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest accused of molesting at least 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. In a 1985 case, he initially declined to act against a California priest, Stephen Kiesle, who admitted to molesting two boys, saying that stripping him of his priesthood could cause "detriment" to "the community of Christ's faithful." Eventually, the Vatican acceded to the priest's own request that he be de-ordained.
As pope, Benedict rejected the resignations of two Irish bishops accused of participating in a widespread cover-up of sexual abuse by priests under their supervision.