On Saturday, March 20, Pope Benedict XVI released his long-awaited Letter to the Catholics of Ireland in response to the scandal of Church members there, particularly priests and religious, sexually abusing children and vulnerable young people. This is something we know about here in Massachusetts, as we were Ground Zero in the clerical sexual abuse scandal that shook the Catholic Church in this country beginning in 2002.
Recently, the crisis has spread to Australia and Ireland, and more recently to Germany, Pope Benedict’s homeland, as well as Austria, Switzerland and Holland. It seems clear that this is a world-wide problem which needs to be addressed. There are now allegations that while archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger himself let an abusive priest be transferred, though his vicar general has assumed responsibility for the decision.
Let the facts come out: Pope Benedict has stood for transparency, penance, and accountability in the Church, themes picked up by his recent Pastoral Letter. He reversed his own position (and that of venerable Pope John Paul II) in not hesitating to discipline Fr. Marcial Maciel in 2006, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and an influential and well-connected figure in the Church, when allegations of sexual relations with minors were substantiated. He did the same with Fr. Gino Burresi, a famous Italian priest reputed to have the stigmata, in 2005. The wheels of justice may grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.
Of course, some people think that more heads should roll, particularly those of bishops who covered up or enabled this abuse by their malfeasance. But Benedict has accepted the resignations of bishops in Ireland and ordered Apostolic Visitations (ecclesiastical investigations) of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious orders. He is currently reviewing the results of the Apostolic Visitation to the Legionaries of Christ to see what further steps should be taken in their regard.
I realize that, particularly now that Tim Burton’s 3-D version of Alice in Wonderland is in movie theaters, we might be tempted to respond like the Red Queen, “Off with their heads!” Or, as she also said, “Sentence first--verdict afterwards.” But that wouldn’t be fair.
I think it instructive to consider our Lord’s treatment of the woman caught in adultery, which we read at Mass this past Sunday (John 8:1-11). There, our Lord says, “Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone....Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Our Lord practices what he preaches: “Judge not, that you not be judged.” The emphasis is on the future, more than on the past.
Of course, some people have the obligation of judging, because they are judges. Bishops and popes have judicial power, and have the responsibility to see justice done. In that regard, one of the things that the pope laments in his Irish letter is that in the wake of Vatican II, “there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.” Or, as he wrote in commenting on Jesus’ unjust condemnation in his 2005 Via Crucis, “How often are the symbols of power, borne by the great ones of this world, an affront to truth, to justice and to the dignity of man! How many times are their pomps and their lofty words nothing but grandiose lies, a parody of their solemn obligation to serve the common good!” “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!”
Here’s his penetrating analysis of the causes of the crisis: “Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person.”
It seems that we should wait for the facts before casually assessing blame within the hierarchy. Pope Benedict, whatever his past failings (which I suspect are exaggerated), is currently leading by example, as well as by teaching. Bishops are human, and if we expect perfection in all their acts we won’t have a Church or sacraments. St. Augustine fought against the Donatists of his day on this very point. The worthiness of the minister is not a prerequisite of the effectiveness of the sacraments. Even as to the flawed religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” (Mt. 23:2).
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth (formerly Southern New England School of Law). He holds degrees in civil and canon law.