Grading Benedict’s Letter to Irish Catholics

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Benedic.jpgI’d give the letter a B-, and as a card-carrying member of the professoriat, admit I am sometimes guilty of grade inflation. On the plus side, the pope not only acknowledges blame up to and including the bishops, but also attributes at least some of the problem to 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.” In Ireland and around the world, the canonical doctrine of scandal has been used again and again by church authorities to rationalize covering up cases of sexual abuse. For Benedict to signal that the doctrine has been a problem is an important step. [Update: For example, do a word search for “scandal” in this dossier from the case of Milwaukee priest Lawrence C. Murphy.]

Likewise, there is a willingness to admit that it was not just certain bad actors but the church itself, at least conceived institutionally, that let people down:

Those of you who were abused in
residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from
sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be
reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and
that we all feel…

So Benedict goes beyond the bad-apple theory of the crisis. At the same time, he casts some blame on secular society and even on Vatican II, for supposedly weakening the norms that supposedly prevented such abuse back in the good old days. I’d like to see some real evidence of this. The absence of major pedophile scandals before Vatican II may have less to do with better behavior than with a stricter code of silence.

Be that as it may, the big question prior to the letter’s release was how Benedict would handle the bishops. Some of his language is sufficiently stern:  

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at
grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the
crime of
child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I
recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the
problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions
in the
light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted
grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred…

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency
restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church
which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and
foremost, from
your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal.

However, the pope gives not the slightest hint that there will be any punishment for the bishops who have been shown, in great detail, to have been derelict. To the contrary, he says he is “confident” that, based on what they’ve told him, “the bishops will now be in a
stronger position to carry forward the work of repairing past injustices
confronting the broader issues associated with the abuse of minors in a
consonant with the demands of justice and the teachings of the Gospel.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Apostolic Visitation to certain dioceses, seminaries, and religious congregations (orders) will provide the kind of information that results in papal deeds that live up to papal words. But Benedict finds himself in a dicier position than he was when he set out to write this letter back in December. The flood of revelations of abuse and cover-up from all over continental Europe is now lapping at his own slippers. He has met the enemy and it is him.