The Roman Catholic Church and Pedophilia: A Neverending Story

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An editorial by our editor for the Italian daily Il Mattino (January 21), after the German report then accusing Archbishop Ratzinger.

by Massimo Introvigné

Pope Francis (left) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (right). Credits.

The tragic saga of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests never ends. The latest episode in a story that damages, perhaps irreparably, the image of the Church is a report commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising on sexual abuse by clergy in diocesan territory in 1945 to 2019. The report speaks of at least 497″ casualties and “errors” made by successive archbishops in their treatment of priests accused of abuses. The study made headlines because from 1977 to 1982, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising was Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and he was blamed for his failure to intervene in four cases.

The clamor around Benedict XVI overshadowed three other interesting aspects of the German report. The first is that, as in the previous French case, it is not an investigation by the State or other external authorities into the Catholic Church, but a study commissioned and paid for by the Church. herself, who in Munich as in Paris wanted to know more about what really happened.

The second is that, even considering the smaller size of the territory of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising compared to the whole of France, object of the previous study, the number of victims appears smaller, and perhaps be more realistic. In reality, comparing the two reports is difficult. In Munich, specific cases with first and last names were counted. In France, an algorithm created from the number of known episodes a hypothetical figure on the total number of possible cases, assumed to have mostly remained hidden. The French figure was considered probably exaggerated by several scholars, some of them also critics of the Catholic Church.

The third aspect is that the peak of cases reported in these reports refers to the years 1970-1990. It is too early to draw conclusions, as many cases are discovered years or even decades after the events, but the hypothesis that the stricter measures introduced by Benedict XVI himself and then by Pope Francis had some positive effects does not seem unlikely.

As for Benedict XVI, he has already replied that in the cases with which he is accused, he strictly followed the canonical rules of the time. Assessing this statement would require access to the full records of these cases, but on the face of it Pope Ratzinger’s self-defense makes sense. Let’s not forget that the rules of the late 1970s were not the rules of today. A bishop who failed to apply the rules of the day and punished or denounced the clergy in the absence of definitive and definitive evidence would have exposed himself to a canonical and possibly even civil lawsuit for libel brought by the accused priest .

Today’s standards are fortunately much stricter and are essentially the result of the reforms introduced by Benedict XVI. In fact, there is no substantive difference between Pope Ratzinger and Pope Francis regarding pedophile priests. Francis took a few more steps, but in a direction that Benedict XVI had already sketched out. This does not mean that there are no differences in the way the two Pontiffs are handling what appears to be the greatest crisis of the contemporary Church.

What is different is the communication. Pope Ratzinger thundered against pedophile priests in a tone no less severe than Pope Francis. However, he also reacted strongly, sometimes insistently, when international media or governments such as Ireland and even United Nations commissions quoted statistics which the Church considered to be exaggerated or false, or proposed measures which seemed to endanger the freedom and independence of Catholic bishops. Pope Francis no doubt believes that on these points his predecessor had good reason to complain, but he is also aware that any attack on those who criticize the Church on the question of pedophilia has a catastrophic cost in terms of image. . This gives the impression that the Church always wants to somehow cover up pedophile priests or justify its past mistakes.

And yet, even expressing understanding of the motives of exasperated governments and opening a dialogue with critical media has not proven enough. The media offensive of François who, even on the subject of pedophilia, sought to project an image of openness, transparency and listening to critics had some initial success, but seems to have lost momentum. Pope Francis himself now shows a certain weariness when he addresses these subjects in public.

Benedict XVI’s measures can be further refined, although the Church cannot do much more, without being accused of macroscopically violating in its canonical processes the right to defense, than even a priest accused of pedophilia stands like any other defendant. Additional independent investigations may be promoted and funded by the Church. For example, many demand one in Italy as well. Maybe there will be a church-commissioned report on Italy, but that won’t change much of the overall picture. A more open and friendly communication with the media can be put in place. Yet the climate is unlikely to actually change. Even if it were possible to reduce the number of current abuse cases to zero, which seems unlikely, it is reasonable to think that there are still thousands of cases from forty or fifty years ago to be discovered. , not to mention the work of historians dating back to the 19th century.

Many believe that a breakthrough would come if the Church renounced priestly celibacy. A few years ago, along with other scholars, a department of the Vatican asked me for a confidential opinion on this point. I replied that the Church could find other good reasons to open the priesthood in all situations (as already happens today for some Eastern Catholic Churches and also in the West in particular cases) to married men , but the measure in itself would not solve the problem of pedophilia. Other scholars shared my position. It was not a philosophical opinion but a statistical opinion. This stems from the fact that serious problems with pedophilia exist even in religious organizations that do not impose celibacy on their ministers, and that in society at large many pedophiles are married men.

There is something mysterious and profound about the pedophilia of the Catholic clergy. Benedict XVI and Francis repeatedly expressed this sentiment. For those who believe it, it is hard to resist the idea that the hand of Evil, which Catholic tradition personifies in the Devil, is at work behind a frightening problem that apparently can be mitigated but not solved. The two pontiffs, the reigning and the emeritus, have repeatedly suggested that surveys, norms and decrees, although useful, are not enough and that a profound moral and spiritual renewal of the Church is necessary. The bishops and cardinals who would think of using this crisis as an instrument of the usual maneuver of the Roman Curia, perhaps to eliminate opponents appointed by Pope Ratzinger and still in place, or for a war of attrition which would prepare the next conclave , would simply show that they did not understand the enormity of the drama.


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