Pope Benedict XVI’s anniversary April 19 is time to reminisce. The pontiff, who turned 83, April 16, surprised the world half a decade ago. People thought he would be harsh because he’d been a fierce watchdog when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Instead, they found a calm demeanor, shy smile and persuasive rather than demanding style.
He drew applause on his visit to the United States in April 15-20, 2008. He had a 63 percent approval rate, according to Gallup. Now Gallup reports 40 percent, likely because he is at the center of a sex abuse scandal for not being quick enough to oust offenders from the priesthood when at CDF. He is paying too for sins on his watch as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, where a priest abuser was recklessly allowed back into ministry and abused again. The vicar general at the time accepts blame but the captain of the bark still bears responsibility.
The criticism is ironic, given the pope’s courage in fighting sexual abuse of minors. He wasn’t in office long when he stood up to the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, and told him to stand down -- out of leadership and into prayer and penitence for abuse of women and children. The power of the group that wags called the “Millionaires of Christ” did not deter him.
Pope Benedict is not given to the moving gestures of Pope John Paul II, a natural thespian. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict touched the world when during his U.S. visit he met in the Vatican embassy with victims of sexual abuse. He held whispered conversations with each one, offered his personal apology. He met with a similar group in Australia.
The pain of sexual abuse permeated the U.S. trip and he decried it on several occasions. Even before his plane set down he told the media entourage, “I am deeply ashamed and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future.” He added “it is a great suffering for the Church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen…It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betray in this way their mission … to these children.”
Two years later, he faced child sex abuse in the predominantly Catholic Ireland. He met with the country’s bishops, accepted the resignation of some who had dealt poorly with victim/survivors and had strong words in a letter to the Irish church.
“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry,” he apologized to victim/survivors. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated.”
He told priest/abusers: “You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.”
He criticized Ireland’s bishops.
“I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.”
The pope sent a universal message when he said “the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church” and will require steady effort. “No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved quickly,” he said. “Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, recently said the Vatican is looking at "deepening of the measures of prevention and response" to abuse. That’s important and proof again that Pope Benedict has the will to address this horrific matter. He will get little credit for his efforts, however, because this problem never should have occurred. It is unfair, but it is harsh reality. Lucky for him, he seeks only the gratitude of God.