March 29, 2010 / 6:34 PM / 10 years ago

Pope seen undeterred by abuse scandal, reform calls

PARIS (Reuters) - The sex abuse scandals lashing the Vatican have led to calls for an end to priestly celibacy, a cleanout of the Catholic Church hierarchy and the resignation of Pope Benedict, but the pope seems unlikely to alter his approach.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead the Palm Sunday mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican March 28, 2010. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

The demands, widely aired in the media, are so far removed from the way Benedict works that abuse victims and other critics who raise them seem bound to be disappointed.

The sex abuse saga, while shameful enough to make Benedict issue several apologies to victims, has many aspects that apparently convince him he can continue to tackle the problem quietly but firmly, without undue fanfare.

“He will plod along undeterred,” said Rev. Vincent Twomey, an Irish theologian who has known the pope for 37 years. “He takes note of things, but he’s not a magician. He works steadily ... I think he’ll weather the storm.”

The pope signaled a determination to set his own course on Sunday in a sermon saying faith helps lead “toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”

The key to deciphering Benedict’s approach, Vatican experts say, is his earlier role in confronting what he calls the “filth in the Church.” His tendency to ignore short-term setbacks for long-term gains also plays a part.

“He has a strong sense of the office of the pope,” said University of Virginia historian Rev. Gerald Fogarty. “In a situation like that, you don’t show weakness.”


Until the mid-1990s, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger seemed to share a widespread view in the hierarchy that sexual misconduct by priests — even pedophilia — could be cured by proper doses of Christian forgiveness and modern therapy.

“The Church looked on it as a sin and psychologists looked on it as a curable disease,” Fogarty said. Scientific views changed in the 1980s, but the Church failed to keep up.

Documents published by the New York Times last week show the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the powerful Vatican department Ratzinger headed before his election as pope, did not react swiftly or strongly when asked in 1996 to approve a Church trial against a flagrantly abusive priest.

But around that time, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn revealed on Sunday, Ratzinger also sought a full inquiry into the previous Vienna archbishop removed on sexual abuse charges. But other prelates in the Curia persuaded then Pope John Paul that a probe would only cause more embarrassment in the media.

When the CDF was made responsible for handling sex abuse cases in 2001, Ratzinger sent bishops a letter now criticized outside the hierarchy because it called for the usual secrecy in such cases. Within the Church, though, it was seen as an alarm bell announcing that Rome finally took abuse seriously.

“This changed the tendency in canon law to assume the innocence of the priest,” Twomey explained. “The bar for sacking a priest used to be pretty high. Now some say it’s too low.”


Since his election in 2005, Benedict has further lowered the Vatican wall of denial by apologizing for sexual abuse by priests and meeting victims in the United States and Australia.

He retired the head of an influential order of priests because of allegations — long rumored but overlooked under John Paul — that he had sexually abused seminarians.

While Benedict’s record in the abuse saga has not been blameless, his supporters see him in the Vatican vanguard in tackling the problem and say he has reason to feel that continuing on this slow but steady path is the best option.

This is obviously not a widespread view in the media and public opinion in countries like Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands where abuse scandals are now raging.

It’s not undisputed in the Church either, where Benedict’s critics see the crisis damaging his role as a moral voice in the world and raising wider issues of authority in the Church.

Rev. John Pawlikowski, professor of ethics at the Chicago Theological Union, said the Catholic hierarchy traditionally expects to be treated as a moral authority while modern societies respect those who show real moral leadership.

“The Vatican has to understand that the new challenge is to move from moral authority to moral leadership,” he said.

“Moral leadership doesn’t come just because someone gives you a purple cap, a red one or a white one,” he said, citing the colors of the skullcaps worn by bishops, archbishops and popes.

Editing by Tim Pearce

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