Pope Benedict and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: A Book Review

Thursday, July 7, 2011
This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Pope Benedict and the Sexual Abuse Crisis. They are also a great source for a Catechism of the Catholic Church or a Catholic Bible.

Considering it’s been about six months since I received the book from The Catholic Company, I figured it was time to finally write my review on Pope Benedict and The Sexual Abuse Crisis.

As a practicing Catholic and fan of Pope Benedict, I had mixed emotions reading this book. One the one hand, I was eager to believe any arguments that would clear the Vatican and Pope Benedict of any wrongdoing. On the other hand, as someone who has seen the destruction the sex abuse crisis has caused within the Boston Archdiocese, there is nothing the authors could possibly say to exonerate any Church hierarchy. In truth, I was hoping the authors could convince me that the entire ordeal was somehow a huge media ploy against the Catholic Church (what many Catholics would like to believe). However, what Pope Benedict and The Sexual Abuse Crisis does offer is a critically objective look at the criticism surrounding Pope Benedict and his response to the crimes committed by Catholic clergy in the U.S.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) from 1981 to 2005. The role of the CDF is to “maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines.” Many claim that because of as his esteemed role within the Vatican Ratzinger must have been aware and therefore culpable for the clergy sex abuse crisis. However, as Prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger did not directly oversee clergy misconduct. Yet, in 2001, in a bold and laudable move, Ratzinger wrested control of the sexual abuse cases against priests from the Congregation for the Clergy, which he believed was failing to properly address the severity of the problem. Shortly thereafter in 2002, the American sexual abuse crisis was exposed and to be blunt and literal, all hell broke loose.

The book Pope Benedict and The Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal defends Pope Benedict against the claims that he was responsible for the concealment of abuse crimes committed by the clergy. Written by two prominent Catholic literati, Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson, Pope Benedict and the Sexual Abuse Crisis takes an honest look at the history of events and assesses the Pope’s efforts in improving clergy formation and oversight. The authors create a compelling case that Pope Benedict XVI has worked tirelessly to purge the Church of the “filth” which has permeated the priesthood and to work towards renewal.

Erlandson and Bunson are remarkably forthcoming with the stories of sexual abuse committed by priests in the U.S. (as well as in Ireland). The timeline and comprehensive history of the offenses are well documented by the authors. In fact, much to my disgust, I learned a great deal about the events that contributed to the crisis. The book details some of the horrendous and wicked acts perpetrated by priests and the subsequent cover-ups committed by Bishops and authorities within the Church. The particulars of these atrocious crimes made the book difficult to read at times.

While it pains me to mention some of the evidence presented in the book, I think it is important to note certain statistics. For example, according to a John Jay study cited by the authors, 81 percent of the victims were males. The vast majority (78%) of victims were between the ages of 11 and 17 and “contrary to the general media image of the abusing priests, only 6 percent were victims 7 years of age or younger. 16 Percent of the victims were between ages 8 and 10.”

Clearly there was (and arguably still is) a disordered homosexual element which infiltrated the priesthood. And although the vast majority of acts were not committed against young children (ages 10 and under), it’s hardly convincing to say that 23% of abuse victims qualifies as insignificant or clearly negates the pedophile argument.

Yet, it is the cover-ups of these crimes that are the most despicable. Erlandson and Bunson make a convincing case that Cardinal Ratzinger was unaware of the extent to which the sexual abuse crisis was happening in the American church and that he played no part in concealing the crimes. Yet, there were certainly American Cardinals and Bishops who were privy to the misdeeds of these priests and either moved these priests to new parishes and positions or simply turned a blind eye altogether.

Most notable of the cover-up Cardinals was Cardinal Law of the Boston Archdiocese who infamously opted to have pedophile priests attend therapy sessions rather than be stripped of their collar. He has since retired, but no criminal charges have been brought against him. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles (who is still in office) is under federal investigation for failing to “adequately deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children.” The list of those in positions of authority who ignored priestly misconduct is extensive.

However, the authors succeed in constructing a strong defense to clear Ratzinger of any wrongdoing. At the time many of the abuses occurred, clergy oversight or misconduct cases were not under Ratzinger’s jurisdiction. The Congregation of Clergy was responsible for overseeing priests and clergy misconduct and Ratzinger did not begin to directly oversee the sexual abuse cases until 2001, just one year before the Boston Globe broke the abuse crisis in the U.S.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the question, “where do we go from here?” In 2002, American Church bishops and Vatican officials met to discuss this very question. In response they developed the Dallas Charter in which they outlined the necessary steps to prevention and reconciliation. Key provisions of the Charter include: the establishment of a National Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection, an established norms for legal procedures, encouraging bishops to meet with victims, creating offices to provide professional counseling to victims, improving seminary training and providing priestly formation to strengthen the commitment to celibacy and most importantly, permanently removing a priest or deacon from ministry after he admits committing abuse or his guilt is established, a zero tolerance approach to abuse. Arguably, these changes have helped to prevent abuse within the last decade. Certainly, claims have diminished and Catholics can be hopeful that the purging of the criminal priests has resulted in a renewal within the priesthood and the Church.

Despite Ratzinger’s innocence I am not entirely sure he is without blame (and I imagine he would agree with me). Even if he was ill informed of the details or the extent to which certain crimes were being committed and covered up, shouldn’t he have been? Shouldn’t someone have been aware and shouldn’t that someone have been the #2 man in the Vatican?

Perhaps my condemnation lies not with Ratzinger but with the hierarchy of the Church. Ratzinger is simply representative of that authority and therefore the first to receive blame. Living within the Boston Archdiocese, I have witnessed first-hand the damage caused by abusive priests and bishops. Catholics here are skeptical, they are jaded and many no longer attend church. To be honest, I can’t blame them. Unlike other parts of the country, where being Catholic is something for Sunday, here amongst the Bostonians Catholicism is an integral part of the identity and culture of the people. They have experienced and witnessed crimes beyond comprehension. They have watched the destruction of their beloved mother church and the betrayal by the priests and bishops to whom they entrusted the care of theirs and their children’s’ souls. Such betrayal is not easily forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

In closing, I am reminded of Peggy Noonan’s article The Catholic Church’s Catastrophe in which she praises the media and Pope Benedict for their willingness to “admit, confront and attempt to redress what happened.” The book Pope Benedict and the Sexual Abuse Crisis should also be commended for its candor for it is only through such transparency that the Church will begin to heal.

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