On the flight from Rome to Washington, D.C., aboard Alitalia’s Shepherd One, Pope Benedict XVI surprised many by specifically addressing the question of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States. It was one of only four pre-written questions answered by the Pope, and the only question he answered in English. The next day, nearly every headline zeroed in on the sex abuse topic.
It was clear that he wanted to address the topic head on, but I admit to having some concern at the time that he had given journalists a “first day” story that would skew the rest of the news coverage of his visit. After all, this trip was an opportunity to inspire and renew, not rehash.
The Church in the United States has been dealing with the sex abuse scandals since 1985. In 2002 the individual scandals over the years coalesced around the court-ordered release of internal documents from the Archdiocese of Boston. The subsequent outcry toppled Cardinal Bernard Law -- who was not part of the Vatican's official delegation -- and a handful of bishop-abusers, and led to an unprecedented examination of conscience on the part of the Catholic Church in this country.
But the Pope’s comments have been anything but a rehash. Instead, he confronted head on what he clearly sees as a major impediment to the Church’s authority and spiritual mission, saying that he was “ashamed” by these priest-betrayers.
In a statement that deserves to be hung in every seminary in the country, he added, “It is more important to have good priests than to have many priests.”
In his speech the next day to the U.S. bishops, the Pope made the same points, but elaborated in two areas:
He called on the bishops to support and encourage their priests. Many priests have not felt supported, even as they have borne the brunt of the innuendo and suspicion fostered by the scandals.
The Pope also situated the scandals in a larger context. Sexual abuse of children and teens is not the sole province of the Catholic Church, despite what some editorialists seem to suggest.
While 5,000 priests have been implicated over 50 years, a recent Associated Press investigation found that in only five years, more than 2,500 educators in public schools were sanctioned in some way for sexual misconduct, most with minors.
We don't know how many educators (or doctors, lawyers, dentists or daycare workers) have abused children over the past 50 years because no institution other than the Catholic Church has undertaken this kind of self-examination.
Sexual abuse of minors is a vast social problem that extends far beyond schools and churches, and today even includes kids abusing kids after seeing Internet porn. Its lasting psychological toll is significant and growing.
This is why the Pope encouraged the bishops to protect children, but also to “address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores” and to inspire society to take “a determined, collective response” to the issue.
At his first papal Mass at Nationals Stadium, the Pope returned to the topic a third time, urging the Catholic laity to be involved in the efforts “to foster healing and reconciliation” for the victims, while at the same time loving the so many good priests who are laboring in the vineyard.
His message – to help the victims, to support priests, and to address the evil in the Church and in the larger society – may not satisfy many of the Church’s harshest critics. The New York Times editorialized on April 17 that the Church needed to do still more in terms of giving an “accounting of the long years of cover-up.”
On April 18, the Times reported that the anger of many victims of priest sexual abuse seemed undiminished by the fact that the Pope met, talked and prayed with five victims of Boston sexual abuse.
Abuse within the context of the Church is particularly destructive of its victims, and no single encounter or single speech is likely to make the anger and pain disappear.
What Pope Benedict has done, however, is to confront a difficult issue and model the kind of spiritual humility and pastoral concern that should have been the hallmark of all his brother bishops -- in the United States and in Rome -- from day one of the scandal.
-- Greg Erlandson