Pope Benedict, Catholic Church Need to Repent

I'm not sure I can take it anymore, my Catholic friend K. wrote to me in an e-mail. Maybe I should become an Episcopalian.

Fury does not begin to describe her mood. More than 10,000 children in Europe smacked, tortured, and raped by priests who were supposed to protect them. Bishops and spokesmen denying or minimizing their role—appearing, for all the world, like old men who seem not to understand the seriousness of what they've done. When universal clerical celibacy was established in 1139, it was intended, as Diarmaid MacCulloch puts it in his new book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, to "set up a barrier between the clergy and laity, becoming the badge of clerical status." The barrier's still there, but in these cases the status carries a strong whiff of freakishness.

Chilling headlines came out of the Roman Catholic Church last week. In Ireland it was revealed that Cardinal Sean Brady had reportedly been present at a 1975 tribunal at which child victims were forced to sign an affidavit affirming they'd keep silent on the matter of their molestation. "Frankly," the cardinal told reporters, "I don't believe that this is a resigning matter." (He later apologized.) In Germany the pope's older brother, Georg Ratzinger, confessed that he'd occasionally slapped boys in the choir at Regensburg, but that it always made him feel bad; he had no knowledge of sexual abuse at the school. In Rome, Vatican spokesmen denied that Pope Benedict XVI knew about the predatory activities of a pedophile priest under his jurisdiction when he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982. His deputy from that period confessed it was he and not his boss, then Joseph Ratzinger, who reinstated the offending priest (post–remedial therapy) into a parish—where he proceeded to abuse more children.

Reporters will continue to investigate the question, what did Benedict know and when did he know it? This is appropriate. But his continued complicity in the matter of Cardinal Bernard Law taints him already, no matter what is revealed in Munich.

Law presided over the Boston Archdiocese for nearly 20 years. During that time he ignored repeated pleas from the mothers and aunts of abused children, coddled offending priests, and demanded silence from victims until—after the number of cases exceeded 500—he was forced in 2002 to resign his post. Today he is the archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, a position that, according to a 2004 New York Times article, earns him $12,000 a month. He reports "to no one but the pope," according to that story, and lives in "a palatial apartment." As an active member of the College of Cardinals, he can help elect the next pope and works on at least seven Vatican committees. Vatican experts stress that Law's new position is indeed a demotion. "I can assure you," writes the Notre Dame theologian the Rev. Richard McBrien in an e-mail, "that it was a great sacrifice for Cardinal Law to leave Boston, and especially under a cloud of controversy." But an outsider can't help but see it as cronyism. Sorry about that Boston business, old chap. Hope you enjoy the ancient frescoes in your massive flat.

Benedict's new letter on sex abuse (released past press time) will likely be as contrite a papal document as ever was. He has used the word "evil" to describe the scandal and will probably do so again. What's been missing, though, is any institutional sense of penance. Where is the genuine, self-reflective horror among the people in charge that they let things go terribly wrong? Where are the resignations, the defrockings, the reassertions of essential values? (The church that insists on the sacredness of every human life has lived this conviction very poorly.) "Catholics understand the language of the sacrament of reconciliation," says the Rev. James Martin, author most recently of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. Martin believes the prodigal son offers the best example of how a bishop might seek forgiveness. The boy squanders his fortune and then, in grief, prostrates himself before his father, saying, "I have sinned against God and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."

But how can I continue to send my kid to church? insists K. To that, the most heart-wrenching of questions, there is no answer. Stay, and—as the catechism teaches—embrace the church as the people and the good priests and sisters in it: their prayers, their songs, their service. "I pay no attention to popes anymore—they have nothing to do with the Gospel," writes the historian Garry Wills in an e-mail. Or walk away, and teach your child an independent justice. For an institution that protects itself above its children may not, after all, offer the best Sunday lesson.