Two Sundays before Easter, Pope Benedict XVI sent a 4,700-word “pastoral letter” to the Roman Catholic faithful of Ireland. Read in full from the pulpits of every church in the country, the note was the Vatican’s official response to two Irish investigations, which revealed—yet again—that pedophile priests had preyed on helpless children, and that certain self-serving bishops had moved heaven and earth to cover up the truth.
The Pope apologized directly to victims and their families, saying he is “truly sorry” for “these sinful and criminal acts.” He admitted that “grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred,” but assured his flock that “the Church has done an immense amount of work in many parts of the world in order to address and remedy” past mistakes. Benedict’s letter also spoke directly to the guilty priests, known and unknown. “I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow,” he wrote. “God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing.”
The question now is whether the Pope is prepared to do the same: give an account of his actions—and conceal nothing.
Twenty-five years after the Church’s darkest secret was first exposed, the endless sex abuse scandal has finally reached the Pontiff himself. Faced with damning revelations about his own dealings with predatory priests, Benedict has come under unprecedented pressure to reveal what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did (or did not) do about it. No matter how hard the Holy See tries to blame “vile” journalists who “want to involve the Pope at all costs”—or how often Benedict insists he won’t be “intimidated by petty gossip,” as he told parishioners on Palm Sunday—his papacy is suddenly in serious doubt. Some have gone so far as to demand his resignation, and many more are convinced that the Holy Father is not telling the entire truth.
“Is this an all-time low? Absolutely,” says John Swales, a London, Ont., man who, starting at the age of 10, was repeatedly assaulted by a local priest. “The leadership is horrific. I have lost total faith in their ability to do anything with decency. How can anyone be held accountable when the Pope is not held accountable?”
Two decisions in particular—now public after so many years—have come back to haunt His Eminence, threatening to shatter his image as a no-nonsense disciplinarian and raising fresh questions about his possible role in a Vatican-wide cover-up.
In 1980, when Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the archbishop of Munich, he reportedly approved treatment for a confessed child abuser, Peter Hullermann, only to be informed a few days later that the known “danger” was being returned to priestly duties. Hullermann went on to target more altar boys, and in 1986 was sent to prison. A decade later, while the would-be pontiff was in charge of the Vatican office that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, he declined to defrock another notorious molester who assaulted more than 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. The priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, sent a personal letter to Ratzinger, begging for mercy. “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” he wrote. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.” Murphy was allowed to die a priest, buried in his vestments.
Uncomfortable questions about the Pope’s personal conduct come as the Church faces a flurry of new abuse allegations spreading across Europe. In recent weeks, as Catholics marked the holy season of Lent, hundreds of victims surfaced to tell their horrific stories, not only in Ireland, but in Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands and Benedict’s home nation of Germany. Authorities there are now investigating the possibility that the Pontiff’s older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, turned a blind eye to sexual abuse while in charge of the famed Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir (he denies such accusations).
But it’s the Pope, Catholicism’s ultimate authority, who is at the centre of the storm. His reputation is under such ferocious attack that even the National Catholic Reporter, a source of balanced perspective on the sex abuse scandal, has called on Benedict to “directly answer questions, in a credible forum,” about his role in the saga. “We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in Church history,” the paper said. “How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our Church for decades, if not centuries, to come. It is time, past time really, for direct answers to difficult questions. It is time to tell the truth.”
The truth, headlines aside, is that no other pope has done more to crack down on depraved clergy than Benedict XVI. Even his harshest critics would agree that he has been infinitely more honest about the scope of the problem than his beloved predecessor, John Paul II, who tended to view pedophilia as an American phenomenon driven more by societal degradation than systemic flaws in the priesthood. Benedict met with victims, lamented the “filth” in his Church, and, in the early days of his papacy, took the symbolic step of disciplining Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the notorious Mexican priest (and close friend of John Paul) who assaulted multiple children—and fathered up to seven of his own.
But it’s what Benedict did behind the scenes, before he was the public face of 1.1 billion Catholics, that is now being scrutinized and second-guessed. As an archbishop in Germany, was he part of the secretive Church culture that closed its eyes to the problem? And as a cardinal—and the Vatican pit bull—was he too soft on delinquent priests?
“The average rank-and-file Catholic is up to their eyeballs with these stories, but it’s a story that’s not going away,” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has published dozens of studies about sexually abusive clergy. “It’s one thing to have some bishop somewhere make a decision that was a bad decision. It’s quite another thing to have the future pope make some decisions that were bad decisions.”
The Hullermann file first came to Ratzinger’s attention in early 1980, when another diocese asked if the molester could receive psychiatric treatment in Munich. Archbishop Ratzinger approved the request on Jan. 15, and Hullermann was granted permission to live at a church in the northern part of the city. Then, just five days later, Ratzinger reportedly received a copy of a memo from his vicar-general, announcing Hullermann’s return to full pastoral duties. The pedophile went on to target more victims at another parish, plying them with booze and forcing them to watch pornographic videos.
A subordinate has taken full responsibility, claiming Ratzinger was never told that Hullermann was allowed back into the company of children. But the memo suggests otherwise. “He did what the rest of them were doing,” says Rev. Thomas Doyle, an American priest who first warned the Vatican in the mid-1980s that an epic scandal was brewing. “This was a blatant example. This guy should not have been around kids, and there is no way that assignment could have been done without the archbishop’s signature.”
Others have rushed to the Pope’s defence, pointing out the flaws in applying 2010 standards to a decision that was made three decades earlier. At the time, even the best psychiatrists knew little about pedophilia, and many of them believed it was curable. “Of course it’s scandalous to have men of the cloth sexually violate children,” Plante says. “It’s a terrible story. But to be fair to the bishops, when decisions were made back in 1960, 1970 and 1980, people didn’t know what to do with sex offenders, not only inside the Church but outside the Church.”
That is hardly comfort for victims—or absolution for Pope Benedict. Bishops may not have fully understood the science behind child molestation, but their response was inexcusable. In case after case, predators were given a stern talking-to, quietly shipped to a new parish, or sent for therapy sessions that did little but postpone the next round of abuse. Thousands of children lost their innocence because bishops were more concerned with saving face than saving them. “Their motto was, ‘Avoid scandal at all costs. We don’t care who gets hurt in the process, just avoid scandal at all costs,’ ” says Rev. John Allan Loftus, former executive director of the Southdown Institute, a Toronto-area facility that treats priests for a wide range of psychological disorders. “It was handled very poorly, and there is loads of blame to go around.”
Including, it seems, the man who would become pope. If Ratzinger knew Hullermann was a threat, and sat idly by as he was shuffled back into a church setting, forgiveness will not be swift. “He was the captain of the ship, and he’s got to bear responsibility for what happened,” Loftus says. “The whole thing is dreadful. I’m at a loss for words.”
A year after Hullermann arrived in Munich, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy See office in charge of promoting “morals throughout the Catholic world.”
When he arrived in Rome in 1981, the Vatican still had no official policy on how to deal with allegations of priestly pedophilia. Only cases involving “solicitation” in the confessional, an act specifically forbidden by canon law, were forwarded for “prosecution.” The rest, tragically, were handled in-house by individual bishops.
What is clear, however, is that the Vatican hierarchy, including the new chief doctrinal officer, was beginning to understand the gravity of the problem. By 1984, Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana priest, had been charged with 34 counts of sexual crimes against minors, and Father Doyle, then stationed at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, was warning his superiors that pedophile priests were “arising with increased frequency” and could cost the Church “one billion dollars” in lawsuits. In 1989, the media was revealing rampant abuse at Newfoundland’s Mount Cashel Orphanage, run by the Christian Brothers, triggering two public inquiries and millions of dollars in settlements. And by 1994, Rev. Brendan Smyth, an Irish priest who molested more than 100 children, was in handcuffs and on front pages. The secret was out.
Yet in 1996, when bishops in Wisconsin began pleading with Ratzinger to defrock Father Murphy (the priest who had preyed on deaf boys), he declined. The police never laid charges, his office said, and Murphy was too old and sick to be put on trial.
Again, Benedict has his defenders. While many victims want all abusive priests to be defrocked, others believe the best way to protect children from dangerous clergy is to ensure that those priests remain in the fold, where they can be monitored. “It’s what we call a life of prayer and penance,” says Rev. Frank Morrisey, a professor of canon law at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. “He can’t technically function as a priest, but if we put him out on the street and he was still a predator, then he is under no supervision. People are blaming the Church for keeping these people and putting them in special living situations, but imagine if they just said: ‘Fine, out you go.’ ”
In May 2001—after decades of abuse and obfuscation—the Vatican finally cracked the doctrinal whip in a meaningful way. Appalled by the files that did cross his desk, Ratzinger sent a letter to all bishops, ordering them to forward every allegation, new or old, to his office. The memo specified that each accusation will be “subject to the pontifical secret,” ensuring the internal discipline process remained confidential for both the accused priests and their victims. Some have since characterized the letter as a smoking gun, proof that Ratzinger and the Vatican were conspiring to hide embarrassing details from police and the press. In truth, the document was a monumental step for a Church that had failed to do the moral thing for so long. For the first time, the Holy See acknowledged just how deep the rot ran, and committed itself to punishing the guilty.
Nowhere in that letter were bishops—or victims—forbidden from reporting crimes to authorities. In fact, Canadian bishops already had a decade-old policy that compelled the Church to phone police at the first whiff of wrongdoing.
Of the 3,000 cases forwarded to Rome over the past decade, 20 per cent resulted in full canonical trials. A further 10 per cent resulted in priests being defrocked immediately, while in another 10 per cent they resigned voluntarily. The remaining offenders faced “other administrative and disciplinary provisions,” including a ban on celebrating mass.
“People think that anything short of defrocking is bad, is cover-up, and is not being hard enough,” Plante says. “But the question is: what are you going to do to make sure these guys don’t have contact with kids? There is not a whole lot the Church can do to make things right for something that happened decades ago. All they can really do is make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
And that may be the Pope’s saving grace. If the Vatican is correct—if Benedict is the man who chose honesty over secrecy, who tried to tackled the sex abuse scandal when no one else would—his legacy may survive two regrettable decisions. All he needs to do is follow his own advice: search his conscience, take responsibility for any sins he may have committed, and conceal nothing.