I don’t pretend to know why Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign in almost 600 years. But I’m going to bet it had something to do with the constant drumbeat of scandal that marked his eight-year reign.
Before he became pope, he was Joseph Ratzinger, a German cardinal. You may not know, however, that he had long been in charge of the Vatican office to which all reports about sexually misbehaving priests were directed. In other words, for years, every single complaint about sexual abuse by a priest crossed the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger.
Agreed, he was just one man within the vast Vatican framework. But he was at the top. He was the man within the organization who was in a position to know about every accusation and what action (if any) had been taken to learn the truth about allegations of sexual abuse.
The information about priests with multiple complaints against them was at Ratzinger’s fingertips. He could easily have looked up information about all those priests who had been transferred from parish to parish — and the children who claimed they, too, had been abused.
Ratzinger’s office kept track of priests who had been sent away for “rehabilitation” to treatment centers in New Mexico, Missouri and Maryland, to name just three. It would have been next to impossible for Ratzinger not to have noticed the trend. He surely must have wondered and prayed about the best path to take. Was Ratzinger the one who counseled silence among the ranks, or did he just go along with it?
And then, after all those years of monitoring the growing tsunami of sexual abuse complaints, Cardinal Ratzinger became the pope. Certainly during his years in that seat of power he had the authority to enact meaningful change. He did not.
I had a sort of complicated religious upbringing. My mother was from a devoutly Methodist household, and my father called himself agnostic. I went to Sunday school as a child, and later my step-grandmother began to take me to her Catholic church. I was mesmerized by the cathedrals, the pageantry and the seemingly devoted priests whom the congregation called “Father.”
I sent my only child to Catholic elementary and high school, and to this day I feel she got a great education. I think that there are many good and dedicated men in the priesthood.
Today, as plans are underway for the Vatican’s conclave, where the pope’s successor will be chosen, I wonder what he is thinking. Does he look back and wonder about the wisdom of keeping the secrets of predatory priests all these years? Does he worry about the fate of victimized children? Does he wonder if the wiser path might have been to stand firm against sin, call in the police and let prosecutors do their jobs?
Certainly, the church’s reputation would have emerged stronger had offending priests been treated like other criminals.
As the world’s cardinals converge on Rome, I imagine many of them are looking for a sign from God about the right thing to do, the right ballot to cast. Who should they vote to be the next vicar of Christ? Who among them has the strength and moral character to do what must be done? Do they want a caretaker or a leader?
Before they vote, I hope they first realize that if something definitive isn’t done to respond to the sex scandals — something grand and meaningful — the very future of the institution is in grave danger. The sheer breadth of the disgrace engulfing parishes across the United States, the British Isles, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere is so immense as to be completely debilitating if not addressed.
Who am I to offer suggestions? But I hope they begin the conclave with a discussion of this most obvious problem. Each cardinal should carefully weigh what their colleagues say about how to deal with the scandal. I hope they don’t vote for a candidate because “it is time” for a Latino, black or American pope. They should vote for the best, most forward-thinking man for the job — and they should vote like their organization’s future depends on it. Because it does.
They also, clearly, need to discuss the elephant in the room: celibacy. Requiring that any human being abstain from all sexual activity is an unnatural prerequisite to my mind. I’m not saying that being celibate — or struggling to remain celibate — causes pedophilia. But I think it is safe to say it can cause sexual confusion and frustration.
Further, I think there have been some men who have gravitated to the priesthood because they feared their sexual desire for children and thought the church could help them keep it in check. And the most obvious point about the celibacy requirement: It automatically excludes all men who have loving and healthy relationships with women. Isn’t a man who knows the true love of another person the perfect candidate to minister to and counsel others?
It seems so self-defeating for a church to exclude faithful men at a time when they are reported to be so desperate for new priestly recruits. Lift the celibacy rule, and I bet the church would see a flood of devoted religious men step forward to spread the gospel.
As the conclave gets underway I hope the cardinals understand it is time for moral, compassionate and truly healing leadership at the Vatican. There is no better time than now for the church to clean up its act.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.