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Pope Benedict and the Crisis of the American Church

April 14, 2008

In advance of his first papal visit to the United States this week, Time this morning examines the clergy sex abuse challenge Pope Benedict will face here. But missing altogether from the analysis of that continuing crisis in the American Catholic Church is any discussion of then Cardinal Ratzinger's essential role in perpetuating it.
Time highlighted the daunting task awaiting Benedict XVI as confronts an American church wrestling with demographic upheaval and still grappling with the fallout from its sex abuse scandals:

The American visit, however, poses an unprecedented pastoral challenge for the 80-year-old pontiff. Benedict's is the first papal trip to the United States since the priest sex abuse crisis erupted in 2001. It is a controversy that has left much of the American laity bitterly disillusioned with their Church's leadership. For many of the 67 million American Catholics, how the Pope confronts the lingering fallout from the pedophilia scandal may largely determine the success of this visit.
Benedict's arrival in the U.S. is being seen as a make-or-break moment for Rome to regain the trust of its American flock, the third largest national contingent within a worldwide Catholic Church of 1.1 billion faithful. In recent days, the Vatican has confirmed that on at least one occasion Benedict will specifically address the issue.

Whether Pope Benedict will address his own role is another matter.
Since the 1990's, the plague of sex abuse cases has cost the Catholic Church in America almost $2 billion in settlements. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles will pay 508 victims almost $1.3 million a piece. Previously, the diocese of Boston paid out $84 and Orange County, California another $100 million, with Portland, Oregon distributing an additional $52 million for its 175 reported victims. Five dioceses in Tucson, Portland, Spokane, San Diego and Davenport, Iowa have declared bankruptcy as a result of the financial devastation they incurred.
After the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached its $660 million settlement last year, Cardinal Roger Mahony said, "It should not have happened, and it should not ever happen again."
Sadly, Pope Benedict apparently does not seem able to match even Mahony's perfunctory expressions of failure and shame. After all, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II right-hand man on doctrinal matters, who brought Boston's disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law to the comfort - and cover - of the Vatican. Despite Law being implicated in the protection and relocation of 80 child abusing priests, Ratzinger brought Law to the Holy See, where he remains "a highly respected member of the Catholic Church's hierarchy in Rome." Apparently, Ratzinger believed his 2002 recommendation of a public day of penance by U.S. bishops was sufficient to cleanse the stain of clergy sexual abuse.
Yet despite all the sins of his American Church, Benedict instead seems focused on ensuring his conservative footprint in the U.S. In 2004, then Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed that pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry should not receive communion. (Ironically, Pope John Paul II himself had offered communion to the pro-choice mayor of Rome in 2000.) And just this past May, Pope Benedict reiterated his policy of withholding communion from American Catholic politicians (including Rudy Giuliani, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson) who fail to oppose abortion rights.
Complicating matters further for Americans, Benedict's other recent forays have not encouraged religious tolerance either here or abroad. Almost from the inception of his papacy, Benedict sent strong signals that he would not continue his predecessor's policy of dialog with and outreach to other faiths. In September 2006, Benedict created an uproar throughout the Muslim world with his Regensburg University speech approvingly citing a quote from 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus which derided Islam as "evil and inhuman." (He later offered an apology of sorts.) And just this past November, Benedict issued the papal encyclical "Saved by Hope" assigning to atheism responsibility for some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" in human history."
As Benedict begins his much anticipated U.S. tour, Time notes that the "American flock requires much mending." But many of his followers here worry that Benedict's tone-deafness to the Church's scandals past and present may continue. As Kevin O'Toole, a faithful churchgoer from Manchester, Vermont put it:

"They still don't get it. They are trying to do the right thing, but it's still a measured response. And I think the time for being measured is gone."

Admission of responsibility would be a good first act of penance.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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