Today marks the final day of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, 85, as Pope Benedict XVI of the 1.6 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church.
His resignation due to age and health reasons, announced by the Vatican on February 11, makes him the first pope to voluntarily step down from the highest seat in the church hierarchy since Pope Celestine V in 1294.
The news was a surprise to many, especially those among the Catholic faithful who appreciate the conservative stance on church matters that he has taken since 1968. He advocated a return to traditional values as a response to what he saw as increasing secularization.
Now the world waits as the College of Cardinals prepares to hold a conclave at which a new pope will be chosen. Roman Catholic believers will thank Benedict for his service and the care he gave his flock during his time.
However, there are those who point out that his resignation was an entirely appropriate, even necessary, action given the inadequacy of his response to the scandals that beset the church during his tenure.
Benedict served from 1981 to 2005 as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handled the reports of sexual abuse committed by priests. According to bloggers Daniel Bier and David Bier, “he repeatedly failed to act and refused to change procedures to prevent future abuse.”
Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, who founded the profitable Legionnaires of Christ, abused dozens of boys. Benedict denied appeals for an investigation in 1998. It was only when the case came to public attention in 2004 that he sentenced Maciel to “prayer and penance.”
When still archbishop of Germany in 1980, Benedict prescribed “therapy and relocation” for a pedophile priest “who may have raped as many as 100 children;” according to the Biers, this was shown in confidential memos from his office, although Benedict claims he had no knowledge of the problem.
In 1982, Father Stephen Kiesle, who raped 11- and 13-year old children, was suspended and asked to be defrocked. Benedict failed to respond to this request for three years.
According to online publication The Week, In July 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to “hundreds of plaintiffs accusing up to 126 priests of clergy sex abuse.”
In November 2009, four bishops in Ireland were accused of ignoring abuse reports while five bishops did active covering-up.
In February 2010 came the revelation of “systematic” sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Germany, with Der Spiegel magazine estimating that nearly 100 priests and members of the laity were suspected of involvement.
It is Church policy, implemented by higher-ranking clergy such as Benedict, to keep incidents such as this secret. It is only thanks to excellent reporting by the media especially in the past decade that these and many other cases have been brought to light.
Benedict’s role in the cover-ups through the decades cannot be disputed. The Belfast Telegraph reported in 2010 that in his Christmas address to Rome-based cardinals and officials on December 20 that year, he claimed that “in the 1970s, pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children.”
He also said, “It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a ‘better than’ and a ‘worse than’. Nothing is good or bad in itself.”
Tell that to the young victims of abuse, many of whom never received justice, scarred for life by their violation at the hands of men they trusted.
Just recently, a couple of Italian newspapers cited unidentified senior Vatican sources as saying that Benedict received a 300-page report last December about the blackmail of gay priests by male prostitutes in Rome. This, they said, could perhaps be the real reason for Benedict’s resignation. The Vatican denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, at least one cardinal will not be attending the conclave. Benedict rushed Scottish archbishop Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation from March 17 to immediately, given his own resignation. O’Brien was accused by three priests and a former priest of having inappropriate relationships with them.
Benedict had the chance to right many wrongs, but he did not. Stepping down is the best thing he has ever done. May the next pope acknowledge the failure of the Catholic Church to adequately address these issues, make reparation to the victims, and ensure that no one ever gets abused again by its clergy.
May the next wearer of the red shoes be as transparent, open, and humble as Jesus himself was.
We can only pray.
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