The sex-abuse scandal of the early 2000s never did much damage to the popularity of John Paul II, the pope at the time. Pope Benedict XVI can only wish he were so fortunate. Ahead of the pope's official visit to Malta last weekend, Hitler mustaches and the Maltese word for "pedophilia" were painted on billboards displaying his picture. A petition opposing a papal visit to Britain this coming September has already collected more than 10,000 signatures in that country, and the writers Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are threatening a citizen's arrest of the 82-year-old pontiff for crimes against humanity. And in the United States, a Gallup/USA Today poll found that Benedict's approval rating among Catholics and non-Catholics hit a new low last week, plunging to 40 percent from a high of 63 percent in 2008. In contrast, John Paul II's approval rating in America never dipped below 61 percent, even as the church paid out billions in compensation to victims of pedophile priests.
Support is flagging even in Benedict's traditional bastions of popularity. Thousands in his German homeland are abandoning the church: the diocese in Freiburg lost more than 5,300 parishioners in March alone. And 56 percent of Germans say they have lost all confidence in the Catholic Church. To add insult to injury, vandals scrawled obscenities on the pope's birth home last week. In Italy, where Benedict is known primarily as Papa Ratzinger, 62 percent of Italians disapprove of how the church operates under the current pontiff. Of those, 35 percent say Benedict is wrongly trying to pass blame to the bishops. Protesters now stand every day in St. Peter's Square carrying signs identifying them as survivors of clerical sex abuse, and headlines like THE VATICAN MUST PAY FOR ITS SINS and ARREST PAPA RATZINGER have become standard fare in Italian newspapers. Romans feel let down, and Vatican analysts are already whispering about the next conclave.
In recent weeks Benedict has taken concrete steps toward greater transparency, posting guidelines for how the church should respond to allegations of pedophilia, and late last week admitted that "it's necessary to repent." But it may not be easy for the pope to win the public's forgiveness for sins that happened during his time as a cardinal. Vatican insiders say all future candidates for cardinal--any of whom could become the next pope--will be heavily vetted before investiture to make sure they're not tainted by scandal. Purifying the ranks, the Vatican hopes, will be the church's salvation.