The Pope and the Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Crisis

When the Roman Catholic Church in America faced its wave of pedophilia cases involving priests seven years ago, the Vatican in effect told the U.S. church hierarchy it was a solely American problem, and that the Americans would have to deal with it.

But what the Vatican refers to as the delictum gravius (grave sin) has turned out to be not just an American aberration. The rash of cases of sexual misconduct by priests now coming to light in several European countries — in particular Germany and, more notoriously, Ireland — reach right up to the Vatican’s doorstep: A couple of the alleged cases have brought suggestions that Pope Benedict XVI himself might be guilty of what looks like either negligence or administrative cover-ups when he was an archbishop in his native Germany.

In reality, Benedict was the first pope to publicly acknowledge the problem, condemning pedophilia by priests, introducing a zero-tolerance policy, and apologizing to the victims. But the latest scandals have, by his own admission on Tuesday, “severely shaken” the church. They have also done nothing to bolster the conservative pontiff’s own standing.

One of Benedict’s main policy priorities has been the revival of Christianity in Europe. He argues that the rapid spread of the gospel in Brazil and the flourishing state of Catholicism in the United States are seriously diminished if Christianity fades away in Europe, its historic source. The pope has always regretted the European Union’s refusal to include a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in what eventually became the Lisbon Treaty. In that respect, the scandal over pedophile priests could not have been worse timed: It is certainly not going to lure Europeans back into the continent’s nearly empty churches.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the prelate heading the department that handles allegations of sexual misconduct by members of the clergy, tried to put things in perspective this week in a rare interview in L’Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. Every year, he said, his team in the Vatican’s Congregation of Faith and Morals handles about 300 cases of alleged sexual misconduct by members of the clergy. But only 10 percent of these are “pedophilia in the true sense of the term, that is based on sexual attraction towards prepubescent children,” Scicluna said. Furthermore, the number of cases, though regrettable, is small compared to the total number of Catholic priests worldwide — around 400,000.

The argument is disingenuous, however, since one errant priest can do a lot of damage. In the Irish case, literally hundreds of minors were sexually abused by priests and nuns with impunity over a number of years. Because many of the cases were kept under wraps for decades, the scandals have led the church to promise more openness in dealing with what are essentially problems of human weakness. But critics see the church’s secrecy as both institutional and obsessive. Or as Monsignor Scicluna put it, “The church doesn’t like theatrical justice.”

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