Pope Benedict Stepping Down in Shocking Abdication
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This article has been updated.
Pope Benedict XVI today stunned the Roman Catholic Church — and the world — with his announcement that he would turn in his sceptre, effective February 28. To find a precedent for Benedict’s action, one needs to go back through six centuries of history to Pope Gregory XII’s resignation in 1416.
In a statement issued today in Latin, the pope wrote: “… in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
The Church’s Child-Abuse Scandal
Citing age and infirmity as his reason for leaving the papacy, Benedict’s action comes just weeks after he opened his celebrated Twitter account — and less than a month after the decades-old child abuse scandal drew nearer to the pope’s door, with revelations published in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month that Cardinal Roger Mahony, then Archbishop of Los Angeles, sought to evade the law in cases involving the sexual abuse of children by the priests in his charge by sending them to treatment facilities in states that did not require health professionals to report the crimes to authorities.
At the time that Mahony was covering up the crimes of his priests, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that oversaw such matters.
In archdiocese documents released under a court order earlier this month, Mahony is revealed to have taken actions deliberately contrived to avoid legal prosecution of priests who had sexually abused — and even raped — children. The documents were so damaging that Mahony, now retired and once thought to be a contender for the papacy, was publicly rebuked by the current Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, and stripped of any public duties, an unprecedented censure of a cardinal archbishop by his successor.
Amid the cache of church records, released as part of a settlement between the archdiocese and 500 sex-abuse victims, are several letters to Ratzinger from Mahoney, in which the California prelate reports to the Vatican his reasons for various actions (such as defrocking) taken against the offending priests. The records amount to some 30,000 pages, so their full contents have yet to be pored through by investigators and journalists.
What is clear, though, is that Mahony repeatedly failed to act on concerns about the sexual abuse of children by priests that brought to him by pastors and church officials throughout the diocese, and that when he did, his actions were designed to avoid criminal prosecutions of the predator priests. And it is also clear that in his Vatican office, Ratzinger was the recipient of letters from Mahony informing the Holy See of what actions he had taken.
For instance, in a 2003 letter to Ratzinger, Mahony says of Father Lynn R. Caffoe that between the priest and one boy, there were 100 “instances of masturbatory and copulative acts,” according to an account in the Los Angeles Daily News.
But Mahony never reported Caffoe’s alleged crimes to police, and Ratzinger apparently never instructed him to.
Other cases include that of Father Peter Garcia, who, according to the L.A. Times, “sexually abused up to 20 boys, including one he allegedly tied up and raped, according to church records.” The children he abused were often undocumented immigrants, whom he threatened to have deported should they not comply with his demands.
Mahony ordered Garcia to a New Mexico therapeutic facility, and ordered him to stay away from California “for the foreseeable future.” Garcia died in 2009 without ever having been prosecuted.
Responding to the pope’s stunning announcement that he would step down, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP, issued the following statement:
Pope Benedict followed the same script church officials have used for years, speaking of abuse in oblique terms and only when forced to do so, ignoring the cover ups, using past tense (as if to pretend clergy sex crimes and cover ups are not still happening now). Instead of taking sweeping, proactive steps to deter wrongdoing, he offered only belated verbal apologies and ineffective symbolic gestures.
He publicly spoke about the crisis more than his predecessor but that alone is no achievement. That’s simply because disclosures of cover-up at the highest levels became widely documented during his tenure.
Although Benedict survived repeated calls for his resignation because of his role in allowing the child-abuse scandal to flourish and his failure to protect children, the cache of documents in the Los Angeles case may turn out to be something of a tipping point.
While Prefect for the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith, Ratzinger had little time for the investigation of law-evading bishops, he did find considerable energy for the inquisition of a prelate who dared to allow Dignity, a Catholic gay organization, to meet in his cathedral. After conducting an investigation and sending henchmen to interrogate Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen for 13 hours, the man who became Pope Benedict wrote the following to the bishop in 1983 (emphasis added):
A final question of pastoral practice pertains to ministry to homosexual men and women. The Archdiocese should withdraw all support from any group, which does not unequivocally accept the teaching of the Magisterium concerning the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity. This teaching has been set forth in this Congregation’s Declaration on Sexual Ethics and more recently in the document, Educational Guidance in Human Love, issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education in 1983.
For this and other doctrinal sins, Hunthausen was prohibited from running his own archdiocese for several years — a stinging act of humiliation. The archbishop’s other sins including allowing divorced people to marry in his church, and allowing women and girls to participate in sacraments from which they are banned.
As the Vatican’s enforcer, Ratzinger was known for his strong hand, especially in his punishments for any church figure who ran afoul of the church’s misogynist, homophobic and authoritarian doctrines. Liberation theologians received especially harsh treatment, and feminist nuns who posited that abortion could sometimes be a moral choice were threatened with explusion from their orders.
As pope, Ratzinger roiled the Muslim world — quite deliberately, I thought — with a speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s declaration that the Prophet Muhammed had brought nothing new to the Abrahamic faiths except for the notion that his should be spread by the sword. Predictably, riots ensued.
In visits to Africa, where Christianity remains locked in a fierce battle with Islam, Pope Benedict fared better, attracting large crowds last year in Benin as he preached a message against corruption. (Honestly, the church really needs to anoint a patron saint of irony.)
Yet, as John Allen wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, Benedict also preached against the Africanization of the faith — in a country where voodoo is enjoying a resurgence, and ignoring the fact that Catholicism itself was born of a syncretization of European paganism with the rabbinical Judaism of Jesus.
Compared to that of his predecessor, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), the papacy of Benedict XVI has been pale and dour by comparison. While JPII was every bit as authoritarian, misogynist, homophobic and negligent of his bishops’ wrongdoing, he possessed a charm that inspired people across the globe — a quality that bypassed Benedict.
Because of the rigging done to the College of Cardinals by Benedict’s predessessor, the next pope will likely be no less authoritarian, no less women-hating, no less gay-bashing and no more reform-minded. But despite Benedict’s insistance on a European-style expression of the faith, it is likely that the next pope will come from outside Europe, perhaps even from Africa.
Proof, perhaps, that there is something new under the sun, after all.