One doesn’t have to be anti-Roman to view with dismay the current crisis in the Catholic Church — decades of sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests. The Church has consistently shielded these priests from law enforcement, failed to discipline them in meaningful ways, and often reassigned them to other parishes where they continued to abuse young parishioners.
More and more, the focus is on Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. As detailed in reports, he was at the center of much of the Church’s handling of this problem, first as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, then more importantly as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He held this position from 1981 to 2005, when he was elected Pope. That made him responsible for a generation of leadership in the Vatican’s key office responsible for, among other things, defending and maintaining Catholic doctrine and disciplining errant priests.
This scandal hasn’t tarnished just the current Pope. Most of the Church’s recent mishandling of priests charged with sexual abuse occurred under his legendary predecessor, John Paul II. There’s little question that the legacy of his papacy is also suffering greater damage with each passing day.
While Benedict XVI himself is saying the right things, the Vatican is not responding so positively. They imply that a campaign is underway to smear the Catholic Church and the Pope. There’s no doubt that the scandal provides ammunition for critics and a source of first-rank victimhood (and the prospect of a big cash payoff) for perhaps a few who have claimed falsely to have been abused. It’s also a source of income for lawyers, mostly in the U.S. However, there’s no escaping the magnitude of the crisis, and the Catholic Church has been damaged to the point that it won’t recover for many years, if ever.
The Catholic Church will undoubtedly reform itself internally, not so much because it’s the right thing to do but because of intense external pressure. The more serious question now is how legal authorities will react in countries where abuses have occurred.
The Vatican is both the headquarters of the Catholic Church and a state, with the Pope having the status of a head of state. That latter role gives the Vatican and the Pope some degree of immunity and raises important issues — for example, when the Vatican issues directives and instructions to bishops and priests, are those instructions coming from a state or a church? Are the recipients of these directives and instructions employees of the Vatican state, or are they pastors receiving communications from the head of their church? These issues have often been the subject of litigation in the U.S., and they’ve proven difficult to resolve.
One question, both vexing and monumental, is whether legal action of any kind can be brought against the Pope himself. The more it emerges that he was personally responsible for aiding and abetting criminal activities by priests, the more serious that question becomes.
Some have proposed that the Pope should be subjected to the same legal processes as other suspected criminals. Christopher Hitchins wrote recently,
The supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church is now a prima facie suspect in a criminal enterprise of the most appalling sort—and in the attempt to obstruct justice that has been part and parcel of that enterprise. He is also the political head of a state—the Vatican—that has given asylum to wanted men like the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. What, then, is the position when the pope decides to travel—as, for example, he intends to do on a visit to Britain later this year? Does he have immunity? Does he claim it? Should he have it? These questions demand serious answers. Meanwhile, we should register the fact that the church can find ample room in its confessionals and its palaces for those who commit the most evil offense of all. Whether prosecuted or not, they stand condemned. But prosecution must follow, or else we admit that there are men and institutions that are above and beyond our laws.
The fact of the matter, unfortunately, is that in practical terms the Pope is beyond the reach of temporal law. Even if he’s formally charged with crimes by a government or an international body, he’s a head of state and untouchable within the walls of the Vatican. The worst that could happen would be a limitation on his ability to travel, and even if he did travel to a country in which he had been charged, it’s unlikely that any government with a large number of Catholic citizens would risk their wrath by attempting to arrest him.
But what about within the Church? Are their enough priests, nuns, and lay members so offended by the sexual-abuse scandal that they would demand his resignation? They could, but it probably wouldn’t matter. There’s no provision for the impeachment and removal from office of a pope. He answers to no temporal authority, and even if he were to resign it’s unclear in Canon Law to whom he can tender his resignation. A mere handful of popes have resigned in the long history of the Church, but it hasn’t happened since the 15th century.
The Catholic Church, the wellspring of Christianity, has existed for 2,000 years and isn’t going away. There are about 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, which is about 17 percent of the world’s population. They aren’t going away, either, for the most part. The Church will muddle through this crisis, and Pope Benedict XVI should remain at its head. He’s part of the problem, and he’s best positioned to deal with it. And after all, it’s unlikely that an unstained Pope could be chosen from among the current crop of Cardinals.