Is the Pope to blame?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
15 Apr 2010

It has not been a good week for the Vatican. In the media and wider society, anger continues to be expressed about the hierarchy’s past failure to take proper measures to protect children and young adults from abusive priests and members of religious orders, and to acknowledge the seriousness of such abuse.

While some Roman Catholic leaders are truly penitent, some have dug the church into an even deeper hole by their attempts to shift blame on to others.

In a Good Friday sermon, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, official preacher of the Pontifical Household, suggested that media attacks on the Pope could be likened to anti-Semitism; and later Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, tried to make out that gay priests were linked to paedophilia.

Evidence continues to emerge of cover-ups by those in senior positions, and serious questions are being asked about the role of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. There is a campaign underway to have Benedict arrested when he visits the UK later this year, and put on trial for aiding and abetting sex with minors.

It is not certain whether this would be legally possible, given that some regard him as a head of state (though whether the Vatican is really a country in international law is ambiguous). But there are deeper questions about whether he is the right target.

While much of what happened is still shrouded in secrecy, the evidence indicates that Ratzinger tried for years to impose far stricter discipline on abusive clergy, but was blocked by other top Vatican officials and the former Pope. Senior though he was, he appears to have been frustrated in his efforts until, at last, he had the power to act.

For instance, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has revealed that Ratzinger’s efforts to investigate a 1995 case, when another cardinal was accused of molesting youths at a seminary, were blocked by Pope John Paul II. And investigative journalist Jason Berry, who for many years has worked to bring to light abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, has shown how the charismatic – and abusive – Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, was protected for many years from Ratzinger’s attempts to discipline him.

More generally, the Wall Street Journal has reported on Ratzinger/Benedict’s efforts to cut through the tangle of canon law that resulted in confusion and delay over dealing with allegations of abuse.

Pope Benedict does indeed share some blame for failing properly to challenge the culture of secrecy and obedience to those in authority, and the faulty theology that went with that.

The victims and their families do deserve justice, and churches and other institutions which fail to protect the vulnerable should be held to account. However it would be unjust to make him, as a person, not just a figurehead, pay for the crimes of others and the sins of the previous Pope.

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© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist.

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