Vatican Time Warp
The newsmagazine launches a snide attack on the Pope.


George Weigel

The sexual-abuse crisis has emptied Catholic churches in the United States and Western Europe. “The scandals in deeply Catholic Ireland have led to a massive emptying of churches,” according to Time, and “controversies in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe have had a similar effect.” Nonsense on stilts. Those Irish, German, and Austrian churches were empty long before Scandal Time II exploded several months ago; indeed, those churches had been emptying for decades. Recent revelations of the complicity of Irish bishops in cover-ups of sexual abuse have undoubtedly damaged efforts to get Ireland out of its current secularist slough of despond, just as scandals in Germany and Austria have had negative effects in those countries. But to blame the dramatic decline of Catholic practice in Ireland and the German-speaking parts of Europe on clerical sexual abuse is to confess that one simply hasn’t been paying attention for the past 40 years.

Joseph Ratzinger was part of a curial culture of secrecy and denial that placed greater value on the protection of the Church’s reputation than on the protection of the young. There is no question that the institutional culture of the Roman Curia was once an obstacle to the Church’s coming to grips with the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. But the man who did more than anyone to reset the default positions in the Curia was Joseph Ratzinger, once the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with Ratzinger in the lead, wrested competence in handling these crimes away from the Congregation for the Clergy. That reconfiguration of responsibility took place between 1999 and 2001, when it was approved by John Paul II. Thus to suggest, with Time and the New York Times, that Ratzinger is to be faulted for the failures of other curial offices prior to CDF’s assumption of the brief on abuse cases is like blaming the State Department for not dealing adequately with Hurricane Katrina. By every available piece of evidence, Ratzinger, in his last half-decade as prefect of CDF and as Pope, has been determined to root out corruption within the priesthood (whether that involves the rare cases of genuine pedophilia, the far-more-common homosexual predation on adolescents and young men, or clerical concubinage in Africa and Latin America), while at the same time acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are not sexual predators — a point it would be refreshing to see recognized, in print, by Time and others.

The Catholic Church’s wrestling with the scandals of clerical sexual abuse and misgovernance by bishops is by no means over. Throughout the world Church, the primary complaint one hears from well-intended and well-informed laity has to do with Catholicism’s seeming inability to remove incompetent bishops from office, a problem that is made far worse when the incompetence in question involves malfeasance in responding to the scandal of abuse. The wheels of the Vatican still grind too slowly: Five apostolic visitators were recently appointed for Ireland, but their work is not to start until September, and a papal delegate has yet to be appointed to govern the Legionaries of Christ, more than a month after such an appointment was promised.

Yet the Time indictment — that the Catholic Church is institutionally incapable of acknowledging its errors and the sins and crimes of its sons and daughters — is absurd. No, the Pope has not followed the established media narrative and groveled before the cameras like a congressman caught in deviltry with a staffer. Benedict XVI’s response has been far more serious. He has met, prayed, and wept with abuse victims in the United States, Australia, and Malta. He has called the Irish bishops to task in the sharpest terms, while acknowledging that those bishops’ failures have broken some victims’ capacity to find anything good in the Church. He has frankly acknowledged that the real threat to the Church comes “from sin within the Church,” without absolving the media of their failures of reporting and analysis in recent months. And he has insisted that “the Church has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice.”

That kind of leadership, rooted in that kind of theological and spiritual depth, deserves something more than a snarky cover headline adapted from one of the worst novels ever written.

George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.