The Abuse Scandal

An excerpt from Light of the World, Peter Seewald’s book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI

The pontificate of Benedict XVI began with a wave of enthusiasm. Even the leader of the post-Communists in Italy was complimentary: “His election is good news.” According to Massimo D’Alema, he is “sympathetic to people with intellect and culture.” In his first year in office, the new Pope gathered almost four million people on Saint Peter’s Square, twice as many as in the initial year of his predecessor. More than three million copies of his first encyclical were sold in Italy alone. One million people flocked to the World Family Forum in Valencia, Spain, to pray and celebrate together with the Pope. And the popularity persisted. “Since the Habemus Papam on April 19 in Rome,” the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported, “the good will of the public toward Pope Benedict XVI, alias Joseph Ratz – inger, has continued.”

Did this success surprise you, or perhaps even frighten you?

Pope Benedict XVI: Yes, in one respect it did. But I knew: This does not come from me. It became evident that the Church is alive. The whole Church, indeed, you might say all mankind was affected by the suff ering of John Paul II and his death. We all remember how Saint Peter’s Square, how all of Rome was full of people. That created to some extent a new awareness of the Pope and the Church, which obviously also raised the question: Who is the new one? How can anyone—after that great Pope—tackle the job in such a way that people will want to listen to him and get to know him?

Then, too, there is always the advance of something new, of a different style. In that respect I was grateful and happy that it kept going, that the approval remained. At the same time I was surprised that it was so great and so lively. But it was also clear to me that this comes from the inner continuity with the previous pontificate and from the abiding vitality of the Church.

For four years you are, as an ancient formula puts it, feliciter regnans, happily reigning. The new Pope enlarges the liturgical field by giving permission again for the Tridentine Mass. He announces within the framework of ecumenism the goal of complete unity with Orthodoxy— something to which the Church is closer now than she has been in a thousand years. He could be a member of the Green Party, given his position against war, injustice, and those who sin against the environment. He would fit in well with the leftists when he castigates “turbo-capitalism,” the ever-increasing gap between the poor and the rich. One can sense a revitalization of the Church, a new self-assurance. And you succeed at something that no one thought possible after a giant like Wojtyła: a seamless transition of pontificates.

That was of course a gift. It helped that everyone knew that John Paul II liked me. That we had reached a deep spiritual understanding, and I realize also that in his regard I really am a debtor, a modest figure who is trying to continue what John Paul II accomplished as a giant.

Naturally, besides the things that arouse controversy and put us in the crossfire of criticism, there are always issues that the whole world has at heart and that are received positively by it.

My predecessor repeatedly met with great approval also as a great champion for human rights, peace, and freedom. These issues are still current. Today especially the Pope is obliged to stand up for human rights everywhere—as an intrinsic consequence of his belief that man is made in God’s image and has a divine calling. He is obliged to fight for peace, against violence and threats of war. He has an inner obligation to struggle for the preservation of the environment and to oppose the destruction of creation.

So there are by nature many issues in which, so to speak, morality suits modernity. The modern world, after all, is not built solely out of the negative. If that were the case, it could not exist for long. It bears within itself great moral values, which also come precisely from Christianity, which through Christianity first emerged as values in the consciousness of mankind. Where they are supported— and they must be supported by the Pope—there is agreement in broad areas. We are happy about that. But that cannot blind us to the fact that there are other issues that cause controversy.

Eugen Biser, a liberal theologian at the University of Munich, already reckons you “among the most important Popes in history.” With Benedict XVI, he says, a Church is beginning in which Christ “dwells in the hearts of men” through the invitation to experience God.

But suddenly the page turns. We recall your homily at your inauguration on April 24, 2005, in which you said, “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” Had you suspected that this pontificate would also have very difficult stretches in store for you?

I had presumed that. But let me say first that one should always be very reticent about grading a Pope as important or unimportant during his lifetime. Only later do we see what rank something or someone assumes in history on the whole. But it was obvious, given our world situation with all its great forces of destruction, with the antagonisms that exist in it, the threats and errors, that there could not be cheerful approval all the time. If there had been nothing but approval, I would have had to ask myself seriously whether I was really proclaiming the whole Gospel.

The lifting of the excommunication of four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X in January 2009 is an initial breach. We will come to speak about that later in detail, and also about the odd background of that case. All at once the man who previously was so highly praised that he was said to have actually started a “Benedetto fever” is now considered a “bad-luck Pope,” someone who is alienating half the world. The commentaries are catastrophic. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, in view of an unprecedented anti-papal media campaign, feels obliged to speak about the “aggressive ignorance” of journalists. The Jewish French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy remarks that, as soon as the subject turns to Benedict XVI, “prejudices, dishonesty, and even outright disinformation dominate every discussion.”

Was the lifting of the excommunication a mistake?

Something ought to be said here perhaps about the lifting of the excommunication itself. For an incredible amount of nonsense was circulated, even by trained theologians. It is not true that those four bishops were excommunicated because of their negative attitude toward Vatican II, as was often supposed. In reality they were excommunicated because they had received episcopal ordination without a papal mandate. It was handled according to the applicable canon of the old canon law then in force. According to that canon, those who consecrate others as bishops without a papal mandate and also those who are thus consecrated are to be excommunicated. They were excommunicated, therefore, because they violated papal primacy. There is an analogous situation in China, where bishops were likewise consecrated without a papal mandate and hence were excommunicated. However: when such a bishop professes his acknowledgment both of the primacy in general and also that of the currently reigning Pope in particular, his excommunication is revoked, because there is no more reason for it. That is what we are doing in China— hoping thereby slowly to resolve the schism—and so we proceeded also in the cases concerned here. In short: for the sole reason that they had been consecrated without a papal mandate they were excommunicated; and for the sole reason that they now pronounced an acknowledgment of the Pope—albeit not yet following him on all points— their excommunication was revoked. That is per se quite a normal canonical procedure. Incidentally, I must say that in this matter our public relations work was a failure. It was not explained adequately why these bishops had been excommunicated and why they now, for purely canonical reasons, had to be absolved from the excommunication.

For the general public, there was the impression that Rome was dealing very leniently with right-wing, conservative groups, while left-wing and liberal activists were being quickly silenced.

In this case we were simply dealing with a clear, canonical situation. Vatican II was not involved at all. Nor the question of other theological positions. With their acknowledgment of the primacy of the Pope, these bishops, canonically speaking, had to be freed from the excommunication; this did not mean, however, that they had obtained any official ministries in the Church or that the position they had taken with regard to the Second Vatican Council had been accepted.

So “right-wing” and “left-wing” groups, let us say, are not being treated differently?

No. All are bound by the same canon law and by the same faith and have the same freedoms.

We will revisit the Williamson case in more detail later.

Exactly one year later, the darkest clouds gather over the Catholic Church. As though out of a deep abyss, countless incomprehensible cases of sexual abuse from the past come to light—acts committed by priests and religious. The clouds cast their shadows even on the Chair of Peter. Now no one is talking any more about the moral authority for the world that is usually granted a Pope. How great is this crisis? Is it really, as we occasionally read, one of the greatest in the history of the Church?

Yes, it is a great crisis, we have to say that. It was upsetting for all of us. Suddenly so much filth. It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything, so that above all the priesthood suddenly seemed to be a place of shame and every priest was under the suspicion of being one like that too. Many priests declared that they no longer dared to extend a hand to a child, much less go to a summer camp with children.

For me the affair was not entirely unexpected. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith I had already dealt with the American cases; I had also seen the situation emerge in Ireland. But on this scale it was nevertheless an unprecedented shock. Since my election to the Chair of Peter I had already met several times with victims of sexual abuse. Three and a half years ago, in October 2006, in my address to the bishops of Ireland, I had called for them to bring the truth to light, to take whatever steps necessary to prevent such egregious crimes from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of law and justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims. Suddenly to see the priesthood so defiled, and with it the Catholic Church herself, at the very heart—that was something that we were really just beginning to cope with. But it was imperative not to lose sight of the fact that there is good in the Church and not only those horrible things.

Cases of abuse in the Church are worse than elsewhere. Greater demands must be met by consecrated persons. Already at the beginning of the century, as you said, a series of abuse cases in the United States had become known. After the Ryan Report revealed the vast extent of sexual abuse in Ireland, too, the Church in another country was in shambles. “It will take generations,” said the Irish religious priest Vincent Twomey, “to make reparation.”

In Ireland the problem is altogether specific—there is a self-enclosed Catholic society, so to speak, which remained true to its faith despite centuries of oppression, but in which, then, evidently certain attitudes were also able to develop. I cannot analyze that in detail now. To see a country that gave the world so many missionaries, so many saints, which in the history of the missions also stands at the origin of our faith in Germany, now in a situation like this is tremendously upsetting and depressing. Above all, of course, for the Catholics in Ireland itself, where now as always there are many good priests. We must examine thoroughly how it was possible for that to happen, and at the same time what can be done so that something like that does not happen again.

You are right: It is a particularly serious sin when someone who is actually supposed to help people toward God, to whom a child or a young person is entrusted in order to find the Lord, abuses him instead and leads him away from the Lord. As a result the faith as such becomes unbelievable, and the Church can no longer present herself credibly as the herald of the Lord. All this shocked us and very deeply upsets me now as before. However, the Lord told us also that among the wheat there will be weeds—but that the seed, his seed, will nevertheless continue to grow. We are confident of that.

It is not only the abuse that is upsetting, it is also the way of dealing with it. The deeds themselves were hushed up and kept secret for decades. That is a declaration of bankruptcy for an institution that has love written on its banner.

The archbishop of Dublin told me something very interesting about that. He said that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it— but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.

Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.

In Germany the avalanche of discoveries of sexual abuse started because now the Church herself went public. A Jesuit preparatory school in Berlin reported the first cases, but very soon crimes from other institutions became known, and not only Catholic ones. But why were the revelations in America and Ireland not taken as the occasion to investigate immediately in other countries as well, to get in touch with victims—so as to eliminate any perpetrators who might still have been at work?

We responded to the matter in America immediately with revised, stricter norms. In addition, collaboration between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities was improved. Would it have been Rome’s duty, then, to say to all the countries expressly: Find out whether you are in the same situation? Maybe we should have done that. For me, in any case, it was a surprise that abuse also existed on that scale in Germany.

The fact that newspapers and television reported extensively on such things was in the service of indispensable information. The ideologically tinged one sidedness and aggressiveness of many in the media, however, took on the form of a propaganda war that exceeded all bounds. Regardless of that, the Pope made it clear: “The greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church.”

There was no overlooking the fact that what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but there was also some pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her. All that notwithstanding, one thing was always clear: Insofar as it is the truth, we must be grateful for every disclosure. The truth, combined with love rightly understood, is the numberone value. And finally, the media could not have reported in this way had there not been evil in the Church herself. Only because there was evil in the Church could it be played off against her by others.

Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a former German constitutional judge, remarked, “The words that Pope Benedict used years ago in the United States and now in his Letter to Irish Catholics could not be harsher.” The real reason for the decadeslong failure, he says, lies in deep-seated patterns of behavior according to a Church policy that places the welfare and reputation of the Church above all else. The welfare of the victims, on the other hand, automatically becomes a secondary matter, although actually they are first and foremost the ones in need of the Church’s protection.

Analyzing this is, of course, not easy. What does Church policy mean? Why didn’t people react formerly in the same way they do now? Even the press formerly did not take up such matters; the mentality back then was different. We know that the victims themselves, too, feel great shame and do not necessarily want to be thrust immediately into the spotlight. Many were able only decades later to talk about what had happened to them.

It is important that we first take care of the victims and do everything that we can to help, support, and heal them; secondly that such acts be prevented by the proper selection of candidates for the priesthood, as much as possible; and thirdly that the perpetrators be punished and be barred from any opportunity to repeat such acts. To what extent the cases must then be made public is, I think, a separate question, which will be answered differently in different stages of public awareness.

It is never permissible, however, to steal away and to wish not to have seen it and to let the perpetrator continue working. It is therefore necessary for the Church to be vigilant, to punish those who have sinned, and above all to exclude them from further access to children. First and foremost, as we said, comes charity toward the victims and efforts to do everything good to help them cope with what they have experienced.

You had spoken on various occasions about instances of abuse, last but not least in the Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland that was just mentioned. Nevertheless, there was an endless series of headlines like, “Pope Silent on Abuse Cases,” “Pope Wraps Himself in Silence,” “Pope Benedict Silent on Abuse Scandals in the Catholic Church.” Shouldn’t some things have been said more often or louder in a world that has become so noisy and hard of hearing?

Of course one may wonder about that. Objectively, I think, everything essential was said. After all, what was true for Ireland was not said just to Ireland. To that extent the word of the Church and of the Pope was completely clear, unquestionable, and audible everywhere. In Germany, at first, we also had to leave it up to the bishops to speak. But one can always wonder whether the Pope should not speak more often. I would not venture to decide that now.

But ultimately you have to decide. Better communication might well have improved the situation.

Yes, that is right. But I think that, on the one hand, the essential thing really was said. And the fact that it applies not just to Ireland actually was clear. On the other hand, the bishops, as I already noted, have the first say. In that respect it was surely not wrong to wait.

The great majority of these cases took place decades ago. Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular. Have you thought of resigning?

When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.

Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?

Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.

Anyone who followed the story in the mass media during those days must have had the impression that the Catholic Church is exclusively a system of injustice and sexual crimes. It was immediately said that Catholic teaching on sexuality and celibacy is directly connected with abuse. The fact that there were similar incidents in non- Catholic institutions faded into the background. The German criminologist Christian Pfeiffer reported that approximately 0.1 percent of those who committed abuse come from the personnel of the Catholic Church; 99.9 percent came from other areas. In the United States, a government report for the year 2008 lists the proportion of priests who were involved in cases of pedophilia at 0.03 percent. The Protestant Christian Science Monitor published a study according to which the Protestant denominations in America are affected by a much higher rate of pedophilia.

Is the Catholic Church being watched differently and evaluated differently with regard to abuse?

Actually you have already given the answer. If you look at the real statistics, that does not authorize us to look away from the problem or to minimize it. But we must also note that in these matters we are not dealing with something specific to the Catholic priesthood or the Catholic Church. They are, unfortunately, simply rooted in man’s sinful situation, which is also present in the Catholic Church and led to these terrible results.

However, it is also important not to lose sight now of all the good that comes about through the Church. Not to ignore how many people are helped in their suffering, how many sick people, how many children are assisted, how much aid is provided. I think that whereas we must not minimize the evil and must sorrowfully acknowledge it, by the same token we must also still be grateful for how much light streams forth from the Catholic Church and should make that visible. It would lead to a collapse of entire sectors of social life if she were no longer there.

And nevertheless it is difficult for many people these days to stand by the Church. Can you understand why people respond by leaving in protest?

I can understand it. I am thinking of course above all about the victims themselves. That it is difficult for them to keep believing that the Church is a source of good, that she communicates the light of Christ, that she helps people in life—I can understand that. And others, who have only these negative perceptions, no longer see then the overall picture, the life of the Church. All the more reason that the Church must strive to make this vitality and greatness visible again, despite all that is negative.

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, immediately after the cases of abuse in the United States became known, you issued guidelines for dealing with those cases. They also deal with cooperation with the civil authorities and ongoing preventive measures. This should forestall any cover-ups. The guidelines were made even stricter in 2003. What conclusions does the Vatican draw from cases that have recently become known?

These guidelines have now been newly revised once more and were recently published in the final version. Always as a continuation of the experience that has been gained, so as to be able to respond better, more precisely and correctly to this situation. Yet penal law alone is not sufficient here. It is one thing to handle these cases in a way that is legally correct. It is another thing to ensure as much as possible that they no longer happen. To that end we authorized a major visitation of the seminaries in America. Here there were evidently also instances of neglect, failure to investigate carefully enough young men who did have a special gift for working with youth and seemed also to be religiously inclined, but who should have been recognized as being unsuited for the priesthood. Prevention is therefore an important field. Then there is the need for positive formation in true chastity and in dealing correctly with one’s own sexuality and that of others. Then theologically as well there is certainly much to be developed and an appropriate climate to be created. And then of course the whole faith community should also become involved in thinking about vocations and promoting them and being attentive to individuals. On the one hand, to guide and support them—and, on the other hand, to help the superiors discern whether or not persons are suitable. And so there must be a whole bundle of measures— on the one hand, preventive, on the other hand, reactive—and finally, positive measures in creating a spiritual climate in which these things can be eliminated, overcome, and as far as possible precluded.

Recently in Malta you met with several victims of abuse. One of them, Joseph Magro, said afterward, “The Pope wept along with me, although he is in no way guilty for what happened to me.” What were you able to say to the victims?

Actually I could not say anything special at all to them. I was able to tell them that it affects me very deeply. That I suffer with them. And that was not just an expression, but it really touches my heart. And I was able to tell them that the Church will do everything possible so that this does not happen again, and that we intend to help them as well as we can. And finally, that we keep them in our prayers and ask them not to lose faith in Christ as the true light and in the living communion of the Church.

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