One of the central figures in the scourge of childhood sexual abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church has stated his intention to resign. After less than eight years in office, Pope Benedict XVI will be the first pope to resign in six centuries. His resignation comes in the wake of a preliminary report earlier this year from his native Germany of the widespread abuse of children within the Church. That report is embroiled in controversy as the lead investigator has accused the local bishops of trying to censor the information contained in the report.
The report from his native land was not the only controversy facing Pope Benedict. Here in the United States, Cardinal Roger Mahoney became the intense focus of international news earlier this year as records were released that showed his direct involvement in cases of childhood sexual abuse. The released documents illuminate the true intentions of those involved: to actively avoid the involvement of law enforcement and other civil authorities, and to bury the truth. Such revelations have reduced Mahoney to a nullity within the Church. His successor, Archbishop Jos Horacio Gomez of Los Angeles, publically rebuked Mahoney and stripped him of all administrative and public duties. While Mahoney was in retirement and had little in the way of any direct duties, the role of an Archbishop emeritus is one usually enjoyed in peace and dignity. Having been born and raised in the Archdiocese, and having served in the region throughout his ordained life, the rebuke could have been nothing less than humiliating for one of the princes of the Church. This was a step that would not have been taken without the approval of the Pope.
Pope Benedict has also been involved in dealing with the sexual abuse scandal that has erupted in Ireland in recent years. In what was once the most Catholic of nations, it was discovered that Vatican officials had written to Irish Bishops instructing them not to report abuse to the police. The letter, written in 1977, was in response to plans the Irish Bishops had crafted during the prior year to help police identify pedophile priests. The letter became public during Benedict’s papacy, and he has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis in Ireland. In addition to the problems he was facing in Ireland and America, the Roman Catholic Church in Australia erupted during Benedict’s papacy with an allegation of childhood sexual abuse. The scandal has never ebbed during his reign.
Prior to being elected Pope, Benedict was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office formerly known as The Inquisition. In that capacity he wrote in 2001 to all of the Catholic bishops throughout the world, ordering that the Church’s investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret. He asserted that it was the Church’s right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and to keep the evidence confidential. While at the congregation, Ratzinger placed himself in charge of handling the global scandal, a job in which he failed. In his authoritative role as Prefect, he placed secrecy before openness, and concern for the reputation and coffers of Catholic corporations before the safety of children.
There is no excuse for the course on which Benedict set the Church. As head of one of the largest child-serving institutions on the planet, he had an obligation to place children first. Throughout his time on the world stage, he had an opportunity to act with compassion and seek reconciliation with those who survived sexual abuse by Catholic priests. He could have been a man who conquered the greatest challenge to his Church in his time. Instead, he is a man resigning from office while the investigations continue and the suffering endures.