Two years ago Pope Benedict XVI—once known as "God's Rottweiler"—displayed his gentler side on a pilgrimage to America. Television pundits spoke of his soft white hair, his smile, "his great warmth and his sense of humor," says Thomas Noble, head of the history department at Notre Dame. On the trip Benedict confronted head-on the American church's sexual-abuse crisis, a catastrophe that first came to light in Boston in the 1990s and unfolded over the years, involving more than 10,000 children and 4,400 priests. The pope even met firsthand with a small group of abuse victims in Washington.
But those victims aren't sure he heard what they were saying. One of them was Bernie McDaid, 11 years old when his parish priest started fondling him during car rides in his Boston neighborhood. McDaid, now 54, says that during the meeting, Benedict read a 10-minute speech offering an apology on behalf of the church. Then each victim had a private five-minute audience with the pontiff, who stood, unmoving, before an altar. McDaid says he told the pope what happened to him in detail and warned the Holy Father that sex abuse was "a cancer" in the church. Benedict just listened and nodded. "He would only speak to me when I pushed him for words," says McDaid.
The image is apt: Benedict, frozen and mute as a ferocious desperation spreads through the Roman Catholic Church. Each week reveals more cases of sexual abuse committed by European priests—several of whom were allowed by church authorities to continue working with children even after their transgressions became known. Scores of priests have been implicated in Dublin alone; one admitted to abusing more than 100 children, while another said he did so every couple of weeks for 25 years. The most irate of the faithful are calling for Benedict's resignation, something that's happened only a handful of times (and never in response to the disapproval of the masses).
It is a reforming moment, an opportunity to sweep away centuries of Vatican culture—to articulate values, engage with the laity, and shine a light into the church's secret corners. Benedict could actually turn it to his advantage by leveraging the qualities for which he is both criticized and admired—his deep familiarity with the Vatican bureaucracy and his passion for theological orthodoxy. But those who've studied the pope, and even many who applaud his other virtues, say he is not the man to rise to this occasion.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned his Rottweiler nickname by silencing and firing Catholic academics who questioned dogma. But the abuse of children seems to have drawn no similar ire. When he was archbishop in Munich in 1979 a convicted pedophile priest was assigned to his jurisdiction, given some therapy, then sent back out to a parish where he molested children again. Documents from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, obtained by The New York Times, show that in the late 1990s -Ratzinger declined to defrock Lawrence C. Murphy, an aged priest known to have molested about 200 boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin from 1950 to 1974.
One reason Ratzinger may not have recognized the human trauma in these cases is that his experience with actual humanity is so narrow. He has spent almost his entire life in the rarefied world of academia in Germany or the antique corridors of power in Rome. "He was a priest in a parish for one year," says the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University. "I'm worried that he doesn't have more direct pastoral experience."
For such a man, the desire to protect fellow clerics can be so deep as to be instinctive: the Vatican's bureaucratic elite, the Curia, is perhaps history's first old boys' club. "It's a culture of secrecy and hierarchy and doing what you're told," says Peter Manseau, author of Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.
What the Vatican views as punishment, the outside world can see as reward. Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up and ignored hundreds of abuse cases in Boston, was demoted, yet retains a cushy Vatican post. Similarly, although Benedict was harsh in his recent letter to the Irish church, calling for "urgent action," he has accepted resignations from only two of the four Irish bishops who have tendered them. In Ireland, "the present hierarchy has no credibility," says Benedict's biographer George Weigel, who favors a cleaner sweep of the church there.
Although he can be firm, Benedict can also be too much of a "play-by-the-rules, play-by-the-book guy," says Notre Dame's Noble. When he was at the Holy Office in 2001, for instance, Ratzinger decreed that cases of sex offenders would be adjudicated by his office alone, "subject to pontifical secret." The document put sexual offenses by clergy—specifically sex with "a mi-nor below the age of 18 years"—on a par with the sacrilege of tossing communion wafers in the trash.
Some close observers believe not only that Benedict has the ability to change, but that he's already done so. John Allen, the respected Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, argues that by the time Ratzinger became pontiff in 2005 he had been transformed by the weight of evidence he'd seen about child abuse in the church. "As pope," Allen writes, "Benedict XVI became a Catholic Eliot Ness," disciplining Vatican favorites once regarded as untouchable—like Marcial Maciel, the founder of the conservative Legion of Christ, who allegedly drugged boys in order to rape them.
Yet Maciel was allowed to live out his years in quiet contemplation, rather than being prosecuted. Most outside observers agree that the current crisis calls for far more dramatic measures—a systemic review of the world's dioceses, and an explicit articulation and enforcement of penalties. (This has been done well in many places, including the United States.) What's needed, really, is a new vision for a church that is more human. Is Benedict the man to provide that? Alas, probably not.