The judgment of Benedict


Next week, 24 Irish bishops and cardinals meet Pope Benedict in Rome to discuss clerical sex abuse. But which Pope they enounter: the “filth”-hating hardliner, or the accommodating academic?

IN APRIL 2005, US Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, like every other elector Cardinal, travelled to Rome for the conclave that would shortly elect Pope Benedict XVI. When Cardinals come to Rome, they tend to have plenty of “business” on their minds.

Thus it was that prior to the conclave, Cardinal George dropped in on Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and, of course, the deacon of the College of Cardinals, who in that role ended up dominating the period between popes. Cardinal George was concerned about a set of US Church rules on sex abuse, then on a provisional two-year approval basis.

At the heart of George’s concerns was the so-called “one strike” policy which sees priests removed from the ministry for life for one act of sexual abuse on a minor. George wanted assurances that this policy would stand. He discussed the issue with Ratzinger who, in George’s words, showed “a good grasp of the situation”. Three days later, “Ratzinger” had become “Benedict”. As George kissed the ring of the newly elected pope in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict waited until the US Cardinal had got to his feet and then told him, in English, that he had not forgotten their conversation, adding that he would “attend to it”. The “one strike” or “zero tolerance” policy is still in place.

This story, recounted in John Allen’s book, The Rise of Benedict XVI, is worth recalling on the eve of the Pope’s meeting next Monday and Tuesday with the Irish bishops, a meeting that will largely (but not exclusively) deal with the fallout from the Murphy Commission report. It would seem to indicate that, despite appearances to the contrary, 82-year-old Pope Benedict not only has a “good grasp” of the full horrors of clerical child abuse but that he is willing to take an unremitting hard line on the matter.

Cardinal George’s version of Benedict ties in with the Pope’s numerous public expressions of “outrage, betrayal and shame” about child abuse by Catholic priests. A few days before his election as Pope, during the Via Crucis in the Coliseum, the then Cardinal Ratzinger had said in his meditation on the Ninth Station of the Cross: “Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? . . . How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him . . .”.

At the time, most Vatican commentators saw the “filth” remark as a reference to, among other things, clerical child sex abuse. When this man went on to be elected to the seat of Peter, it was only logical that we might expect him to take an uncompromising hard line on all issues related to clerical sex abuse.

After all, he had been dealing with the issue at first hand for at least four years, following a 2001 instruction, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis, from his predecessor John Paul II which had called for all allegations of child sexual abuse bearing “a semblance of truth” to be referred directly to the CDF, his congregation. Put another way, there is probably no one in today’s Rome Curia who has read more files on clerical child abuse than Pope Benedict.

So, he gets it then, does he? And there’s the rub. Turn the clock back to the autumn of 2006, the last time the Irish bishops met the Pope in Rome. The Pope offered forceful recommendations on how they should deal with clerical child abuse: “In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.”

This all sounds tough and sound, yet one month earlier Ratzinger’s old office, the CDF, had proved less than co-operative with the Murphy Commission’s request for information, complaining instead that the Commission had not “gone through the appropriate diplomatic channels”. Likewise, five months later, the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, failed to answer further requests for information from the Commission of Inquiry.

So, which Pope will turn up in the Apostolic Palace on Monday? The Pope who is intent on sweeping the “filth” out of the Church – or the one who, at a congress in the Catholic university of St John in Murcia, Spain in November 2002 said: “I am convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the US, is a planned campaign . . . the constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information or to the statistical objectivity of the facts.”

NEXT WEEK’S MEETINGwith the Irish bishops is vital not only to the Irish Church but as a barometer of this pontificate. If, as his closest advisers say, Benedict has been on a steep learning curve since that Murcia meeting, what sort of action will he take? Clearly, the most delicate issue facing him and his senior Curia advisers, in dealing with the fallout of the Murphy Report, concerns the question of “Episcopal” responsibility. Zero tolerance for paedophile priests has already been accepted but there is no “universal” or canonical norm for the bishops who mishandled or covered for abusers.

When Benedict was elected, his supporters suggested he would prove especially attentive to the “nuts and bolts” of governance, in sharp contrast to John Paul II who for 27 years largely left internal Holy See administration to his advisers.

So, will he grasp this particular bull by the horns? If the experience of Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law is anything to go by, Benedict may well disappoint those looking for an Irish “sacrificial lamb”. Cardinal Law was the first “Prince of the Church” to be shown to have covered up clerical sex abuse. For 11 months in 2002 and 2003, he refused to step down when faced with allegations of an elaborate cover-up. Finally, under pressure of public opinion, he resigned, apologising to “all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and my mistakes”.

The Holy See offered Cardinal Law a distinctly soft landing, since he currently serves as the Archpriest in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The impression is one of sympathy for a respected elder Church figure who got caught up in the crossfire of a shoot-out that had little or nothing to do with him.

Given the confusing, not to say contradictory, signals, it comes as no surprise to hear from Vatican insiders that the Pope’s forthcoming pastoral letter to the Irish faithful is not yet written. It now seems, and this would only seem logical, that the Pope will wait until after next week’s meeting before he finalises it.

Benedict, too, is unlikely to have been much pleased with reports of rebellious priests and dissenting bishops in Ireland. If he really intends to clean up the “filth” in the Church, then does not the Murphy report look like an important starting point on the road to closure, for victims and for the Church? Will he forcefully make just that point, behind closed apostolic doors?

Part of the fallout from the Murphy Report concerns the need to reform the archaic diocesan organisation of the Irish Church. Here, too, the Irish question is also a universal one since there are many who would argue that under John Paul II, and to some extent under Benedict, there have been too many “safe” appointments, too many time-servers and not enough imaginative, creative bishops.

So then, which Pope will step up to the plate next week in the Vatican – the hardline “filth-cleaner” or the accommodating academic, keen to avoid squabbling among his “students”? Perhaps a bit of both, with the result that next week’s deliberations may do little to satisfy victims and faithful who seek some powerful, apostolic gesture that will help reach closure on a ghastly phase of Irish Church history.

Next week’s meeting takes place in the Apostolic Palace in St Peter’s. There will be two sessions on Monday and one on Tuesday. The Pope is expected to attend all three, although this has not yet been confirmed. The meeting, held in English, is expected to be attended by the Pope’s closest advisers, including the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Prefect for the Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes and the Prefect of the Congregation of Consecrated Life (Religious Orders) Franc Rodé. The Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, are expected to attend with 22 Irish bishops.