A Pope Besieged

The Vatican used the celebrations of Easter week to stage a counteroffensive in the pedophilia scandal that has challenged its very center. Cardinal Angelo Sodano’s public declaration of support for Pope Benedict XVI, which he said was made on behalf of the Catholic clergy worldwide, was an unprecedented departure from the liturgy of the occasion. The fact that Vatican officials were willing to tinker with the rigid lines of church ceremony is a sign of desperation — but also an indication of an emerging, and vigorous, damage-control strategy.

The central objective is to defend the integrity and authority of a besieged pope. Initially criticized for doing little as archbishop of Munich to protect boy victims from a pedophile German priest, Benedict is now also under fire for not addressing more forcefully the broader problem of pedophilia among the clergy when he was the Vatican’s prefect of faith and morals, prior to becoming pope. Various senior prelates from Rome to Lima pointed out this week that, as pontiff, Benedict has strongly condemned pedophilia, met with the victims, and imposed a zero-tolerance rule on the U.S. hierarchy when the scandal first surfaced in America.

The second line of attack is to denounce allegations of what the pope did or failed to do as part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy. The media — with the New York Times occasionally singled out by name — are charged with playing up the story because of an agenda of hostility toward the church. Sodano dismissed the scandal stories as “the gossip of the moment,” and variations of that phrase were repeated in Easter Sunday sermons by cardinals throughout the world.

In what has quickly become a notorious sermon, the pope’s preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, made a ham-fisted attempt to show that “even” the Jewish community was sympathetic to the pope by quoting a letter from a Jewish friend. But this somehow led Cantalamessa to the outrageous conclusion that feeling the heat from the pedophilia scandal was similar to facing anti-Semitism. The Vatican, through its spokesman, quickly distanced itself from Father Cantalamessa’s statement, but the damage was done.

The strategy’s third goal was to shift the emphasis from a handful of wayward priests to the good work of the clergy as a whole, and also to stress the point that most of the European pedophile cases (like their American counterparts) are decades old.

Partly, the scandal’s revelation reflects changing attitudes, both within society and toward the Catholic Church. Victims are more willing to come forward, as are female rape victims, while modern attitudes toward the clergy have become less reverential as churchgoing has declined, particularly in Europe. In all honesty, the damages paid out to American victims may well have played a role, too.

Unquestionably, the Vatican was unprepared to deal with the ferocity of the current attacks. Vatican experts maintain that this is not a high point in the efficiency of the church’s central government. Also, the church’s clerical disciplinary machinery was designed to respond more effectively to heterosexual relationships. Until now.