Pope Benedict, who announced today he will resign on February 28, will leave his tenure as Pope without having made the one, simple moral and executive decision that would have, in a single stroke of his pen, protected potentially millions of children from harm, brought justice to hundreds of thousands of victims, and finally turned the church on a path towards true recovery and reform: worldwide zero tolerance of child sex abuse by priests.
Because he never issued this decree, Benedict leaves office not only with countless children at risk around the world but scores of Cardinals and bishops in leadership positions who are actively covering up child sex abuse.
Amazingly, across the world today, although there was a modification in church law allowed by the Vatican for the United States, if you are a priest and have been found by your bishop to have raped or sexually assaulted a child, you can remain in the priesthood and in ministry, your crimes left secret and unpunished.
No other profession working with children in civil society today formally allows for this bizarre possibility under their occupational rules. Tragically, this makes the priesthood, in some ways, the most dangerous such occupation for children across the globe. Tragic and unnecessary, since obviously the vast majority of priests never harm a child and serve and support the children in their ministry admirably.
As long as some of the absurd rules governing the priesthood remain in place, there will be a shadow that will follow the priesthood with the sex abuse scandal as it continues to unfold worldwide. Benedict loved and dedicated his life to the priesthood. He could have significantly removed or lessened this shadow that now accompanies it. Sadly, he did not.
According to figures compiled by dioceses across the United States largely by a confidential study commissioned by the American Bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, there are just over 6,000 clergy in the US known to have raped or sexually assaulted children over the past several decades. Extrapolating these numbers worldwide, one can conservatively estimate that there are at least 25,000 to 30,000 priests that have sexually assaulted children across the globe.
Most of these child molesting priests at one time or another were secretly transferred into new assignment by their local bishops, with the approval or indifference of the Vatican. An alarming number were also transferred across state and international boundaries, deploying the unique geographic reach of the church and its command structure, which remains steeped in secrecy, to facilitate the concealment and flight of child sex offenders. In essence, criminalizing the church as an organization.
Benedict, who is technically the Pope until the end of the month, has the unique power to still issue a worldwide “zero-tolerance” declaration for clerical sex crimes before leaving office and making it effective immediately. The next Pope, having entered his office empowered by Benedict’s final act, could then begin the task of cleaning out of the hierarchy those bishops who have been covering up these crimes.
Of course, it’s highly unlike Benedict will do any such thing. Although he seems deeply troubled by the sex abuse scandal, and even met with a handful of victims on a few occasions, Benedict was simply too much a product of the system that created the criminal crisis within the church to have ever been able to really address it and courageously confront it. This also includes acknowledging his own involvement in keeping known clerical offenders in the priesthood, both when he was an Archbishop in Munich, and later while running the Church’s most powerful disciplinary office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). It is at the CDF, court documents show, that Benedict left in the priesthood the notorious Fr. Lawrence Murphy who had sexually assaulted at least 200 deaf children at a boarding school run by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (currently the subject of a new documentary airing this month on HBO).
So, Benedict leaves the papacy with a church still run by set of clerical laws in which, absurdly, one cannot be married and a priest, or a woman and a priest, but a child sex offender and a priest.
Whatever one thinks of the church’s ban on married or women priests, Benedict’s greatest failure was that he could not and would not order an official and permanent ban on child molesters in the priesthood. As he leaves office, it will be tempting to excuse the aging and frail Pope. There can be no excuse for the next one.