Louisville’s new slugger, Ben XVI’s apology, and St. Bakhita’s freedom

The Pillar [Washington DC]

February 8, 2022

By JD Flynn


‘Our most grievous fault’

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI released a letter this morning, which addressed criticism he’s faced in Germany, and, more broadly, his thoughts on the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Benedict is accused of lying about a meeting he attended in January 1980, 42 years ago, at which a priest guilty of abuse was accepted for ministry in the Munich archdiocese, which the former pope then led as archbishop. The priest committed abuse again some years later, after Benedict was no longer leading the archdiocese.

The former pope told investigators last year that he wasn’t at the meeting, but then it was revealed that he was. Benedict has since said he was at the meeting, and that his initial response had been an error — but in subsequent clarifications, Benedict’s legal advisors have said that there was no decision to accept the priest for ministry during the meeting, and his status as an abuser wasn’t discussed, or known to Benedict — and they say their records confirm that.

While Benedict’s letter included three pages of notes on all of that from his legal advisors, the former pope’s text focused on a bigger picture:

“In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault. And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen. As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.

It’s not clear to me how victims of clerical sexual abuse will respond to this letter. On the one hand, the former pope is expressing “shame…sorrow…and a heartfelt request for forgiveness,” as he has done before. On the other hand, the letter is lacking in specifics — whether the former pope believes there are particular decisions he made as the pontiff that should have been made differently, that “failed to confront” real problems, etc.

It is important, I think, to recognize the extent to which antinomian and clericalist ecclesiastical culture created an environment in which clerical sexual abuse and misconduct long went insufficiently addressed and even insufficiently recognized. Benedict’s apology seems to be at that level — an apology for ways in which he failed to sufficiently confront or address those cultural problems.

But the apology does not address particularities — McCarrick, as an example, though not the only one. That fact is certain to be noticed.

Benedict’s tenure at the CDF and his reign as pope include decisions that aimed to address the failures of clerical culture to sufficiently root out and punish abuse. At the CDF, he helped usher in a new legal era on these matters with Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. As pope, he put in motion the reforms to canonical penal law that ended with the 2021 promulgation of a new, and much improved, universal penal code.

But the former pope’s letter today hints at the fact that there are particular situations for which he has great regret — even if the recent allegations about a meeting 42 years ago are not among them. Benedict does not delineate those situations.

Of course if he does so, he’ll be much maligned, excoriated even, by some. But for the whole Church, that kind of specific candor would probably contain very real lessons, and very real insight into contemporary problems. It might be helpful in the Church’s ongoing efforts to recognize, address, and prevent a host of related problems which are not — however much we might like to think otherwise — only in the rearview mirror. And it might set a precedent that would help to resolve a number of still-unanswered questions about McCarrick and other issues, which still harm the credibility of the Church.

Is he morally obliged to do that? I honestly don’t know.

Do I think it would offer important and valuable information? Yes.

Do I think it will happen? Probably not, at least not while he is living — though he may leave behind more reflections on this topic to be read after his death.

Do I think those reflections would impugn entirely his legacy? I suppose it would depend upon what was in them.

But one lesson of the sexual abuse crisis is the way in which the entire Church has gained deeper awareness and understanding of the scourge of sexual abuse, coercion, and misconduct only step-by-step — and bear in mind, there are parts of the world that are even now at only the beginning of that process. Benedict’s own life represents the trajectory of that awareness, and his ministry has contributed to it as well. It is not all one thing, and that’s the complicated part of all of this.

Looking all of that in the face, honestly, and clear-eyed, will require wisdom, discernment, courage, and humility — gifts which, for the sake of victims, and for the sake of the Church’s integrity, we should continue to ask of the Holy Spirit.