This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
By some reckonings, the Roman Catholic Church has as many as a billion members.
It’s the largest religious organization in the United States and on earth. So the pedophilia scandal that has now touched the papacy of Benedict XVI has global implications.
The scandal needs some statistical context. A church this large is going to have problems of commensurate magnitude. The sheer size of the Catholic clergy is part of the reason that abuses within its ranks keep hitting the news.
It’s not clear at all that Catholic priests are more prone to pedophilia than other authority figures who work with children – Boy Scout leaders, say, or Protestant clergy. But if even a tiny fraction of Catholic priesthood is abusive, the tiny fraction adds up to a lot of predators and a lot of victims.
It hasn’t helped that the Catholic clergy – probably like the leadership of most organizations – has had a habit of protecting its own. The most outrageous thing about this mega-scandal has been the way some bishops quietly moved priests from one assignment to the next after they were accused of preying on children or other vulnerable parishioners.
People get that priests are human and that some will sin in a big way. What people don’t get is protecting the predator instead of the prey.
Accusations aimed at the pope himself are the new twist in this seemingly endless agony. Before he succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a role in which he was responsible for church discipline. Before that, he was Archbishop of Munich. He’s now being accused of laxness in dealing with abusive priests, and helping cover up crimes against children, in both those roles.
An accusation is not a conviction. Any just assessment of Ratzinger’s actions as prefect and archbishop requires a full understanding of what happened, what was known at the time, the surrounding circumstances and how the church’s internal disciplinary procedures actually operate. Fair-minded people will withhold judgment until they have the facts. Those who are simply hostile to Catholicism or the pope won’t wait that long.
But the pope’s defenders don’t do him or the church any favors by sounding petulant or lashing out. In recent weeks, for example, one Vatican official likened the intense criticism of the church to anti-Semitism; another dismissed allegations that Ratzinger had blundered in his previous roles as “petty gossip.”
Galling as it may be – especially for bishops who’ve shown no tolerance for abuse – this is a turn-the-other-cheek moment for the hierarchy. Catholicism learned quite some time ago that the path to redemption leads through contrition, confession and penance – not spin control and media counterattacks.
The world needs the moral authority of Catholicism’s best traditions – traditions that have preserved and transmitted such values as charity, humility, compassion and protection of the weak. That, not the reputation of Benedict XVI or any other individual, is what’s ultimately at stake here.