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Four Things Missing From Benedict’s Essay on the Abuse Crisis

Updated: Apr 14, 2019

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published his essay on the clergy abuse crisis this week, I read it carefully and wrote a quick analysis of the positives and negatives of the text. You can read that post here: Beyond the Headlines: Thoughts on Benedict's Essay on the Abuse Crisis.


Now, after taking a little more time to ponder, I want to share four things that I realized are notably absent from Benedict’s treatment of the abuse crisis. I have been very critical of Pope Francis’s response since August, but even in the flawed remarks we’re getting from the Vatican today, at least these four issues are not completely neglected. It’s honestly hard for me to understand how Benedict, usually such a careful writer and brilliant mind, could have gotten this so terribly wrong. Perhaps this serves to indicate how much our conversation about clergy sexual abuse has broadened in recent years - and how little Benedict's perspective has broadened along with it.


So, here’s my take on four important things that are missing from Benedict’s essay:


1. A Global Vision


One of the strengths of the February Vatican Abuse Summit was the emphasis on clergy sexual abuse as a worldwide phenomenon. While clerical abuse first made headlines in the United States and other Western countries beginning in the 1980s, we now understand that sexual abuse is a widespread problem, both within the Church and throughout society. No one can deny that the dominant sexual ethics of a particular culture have an impact on the Church operating in that context. However, any attempt to blame clergy sexual abuse on cultural phenomena in a specific region of the world (e.g. the sexual revolution in Germany in the late 1960s) risks ignoring the global nature of this issue. Unfortunately, Benedict’s approach seems to focus exclusively on abuse in Europe and the United States, which gives a very limited idea of the true problem.


2. Compassion for Survivors


I believe that our Church, as a whole, is taking slow steps toward a more victim-centered approach, one that lifts up the voices of survivors, is willing to look honestly at their pain, and places a focus on their healing. However, reading through Benedict’s essay, it is striking how little attention he gives to survivors of clergy sexual abuse.


I found no mention of survivors in the first two sections of the essay. Finally, after reading more than halfway through the document, I came across these words: “A young woman who was a [former] altar server told me that the chaplain, her superior as an altar server, always introduced the sexual abuse he was committing against her with the words: ‘This is my body which will be given up for you.’ It is obvious that this woman can no longer hear the very words of consecration without experiencing again all the horrific distress of her abuse.” These words seem to imply an awareness of the long-term impact of sexual trauma, but I was distressed to read the very next sentences: “Yes, we must urgently implore the Lord for forgiveness, and first and foremost we must swear by Him and ask Him to teach us all anew to understand the greatness of His suffering, His sacrifice. And we must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.” Read that again. Benedict just turned the story of this woman’s abuse into an argument for protecting not vulnerable children, but the Eucharist. While I hold a great personal reverence for the Eucharist, I am still stunned at the misguided direction he took with this woman's tragic story.


Similarly, when Benedict explains the problems with Vatican trials for accused priests, he speaks honestly about the over-emphasis that was given to the rights of the accused, such that convictions were nearly impossible. When he explains that canon law must be more balanced, I thought he would talk about weighing the rights of the accused against the suffering of victims and the need to protect children. Instead, he argues that, along with protecting the rights of accused priests, the law “must also protect the Faith, which is also an important legal asset.” Not a mention of survivors here, or in any other part of the 6,000 word text.


I won’t presume to know Benedict’s heart, but his words offer no compassion to survivors. This is a serious, conspicuous omission.


3. Attention to Ongoing Systemic Issues


If 2018 taught us anything, it was that the issue of clergy sexual abuse is extremely complex and points to serious systemic issues in our Church. For example, the story of Theodore McCarrick’s ascent to power raises many important questions that can’t be answered by treating clerical abuse as simply a moral failing. Even if one accepts Benedict’s assertion that sexual permissiveness in seminaries is the cause of abusive priests (a presumption which doesn’t fit with McCarrick’s 1958 ordination), the question still remains: What is wrong with an ecclesial system in which so many people knew about McCarrick's behavior and did nothing? Benedict’s narrative offers an explanation for sexual misconduct and why the canon law system was inadequate to the task, but there is no acknowledgement that there was any resistance to addressing this issue, any reluctance to hold priests or bishops accountable, any problems beyond a few "bad apples" who were polluted by the moral permissiveness of their time. In Benedict's vision, there seems to be no fault attributed to anyone other than the abusive priests themselves.


4. Personal Responsibility


As an elderly man nearing the end of his life, Benedict could be in an ideal position to publicly take responsibility for any mistakes he made in the handling of abuse. He could have explained where he went wrong, what he didn’t understand, what he could have done better. Even if he is unable to recognize anything he should have handled differently, he could have at least offered an apology to victims. He could have expressed grief at the abuse and cover up that happened under his watch.


If Benedict was going to offer anything to the global conversation at this moment, it should have been this. We, the Church, would have benefited from hearing a confession of personal responsibility and an apology to all who were harmed while he was leading the Catholic Church.


I am sorry Benedict did not offer that contribution to our “new beginning.”


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“Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the Church. The Church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice.”


- Pope Benedict XVI, May 2010


Lord, help us to learn true penance, that the whole Church may be transformed by your grace.

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