By Punishing Legionaries of Christ Leader, Pope Benedict Finally Grabs Some Good PR

By Lisa Miller

A new culprit in the sex-abuse scandal now rocking the Roman Catholic Church is emerging from the shadows. In this line of thought, one powerful man inside the church knew about all of it—including the atrocities committed upon legions of children (he drugged them in order to rape them) by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the conservative and powerful Legionaries of Christ. The cleric with the inside dope—a special friend of Maciel's—couldn't be bothered to investigate complaints of sex abuse; he "trusted those who cheered him and tried to crush those who questioned his ideas or actions," writes the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., senior fellow at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center, in a recent blog post. This latest scapegoat in the scandal is none other than Pope John Paul II.

The calls for Benedict's resignation—or even, as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens recommend, his arrest—are growing louder. But now, whether as an organized PR effort or a grassroots movement, the late pope John Paul II is posthumously being tarred by the scandal as well. In the annals of blame-shifting, this is pretty extraordinary. John Paul, pope for more than a quarter century, from 1978 to 2005, remains the most beloved and revered pontiff of our time, a lion and celebrity who contributed to the fall of communism and has been put on the "fast track" to sainthood. And yet, it seems, he is not too untouchable to escape being thrown under the bus. In an editorial last month, Ross Douthat argued convincingly that John Paul was a great man, but he was also "a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character." Benedict, on the other hand, "may yet deserve to be remembered as the better pope."

Benedict's defenders have long said that his punitive treatment of Maciel, who was sent in 2006 to live out his life in solitary prayer and penance in a monastery, indicates his authentic toughness on the sex-abuse issue. Now that he has imposed martial law on the Legionaries themselves (he asked for a rewritten constitution and a reevaluation of the group's spirituality and culture), the Vatican aims to paint Benedict as a decisive moral leader. He was simply unable to take clear action on sex abuse while still toiling, as Joseph Ratzinger, under the brilliant and charismatic leadership of the former pope. "Benedict's supporters believe he was trying to take action on the Maciel case but was thwarted by other powerful church officials," reported Daniel Wakin and James McKinley in The New York Times earlier this week.

With this latest move against the Legionaries, Benedict generates for himself—finally—some good PR. In some lights, he shows himself to be the strong leader his supporters advertise him to be. But unless he takes clear action against his own brethren in the clerical class—that is, unless he removes the group's current leadership and disciplines other members of the Curia who were known to be sheltering Maciel—he will forever remain a product of the self-protective culture that created him. The question boils down to this: now that he's out from under his predecessor's long shadow, can Benedict stop blaming others and take some of the blame himself?