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True Confessions

Apr. 7, 2010
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It’s been a heck of an Easter for the Catholic Church.

Who knew the latest revelations about a horrendous case of sexual abuse by a Wisconsin priest would throw the worldwide church and the current pope into their most tumultuous credibility crisis yet?

In politics, there is an axiom that misdeeds can get you into a lot of trouble, but it’s the cover-up that can be fatal.

An unbelievable Holy Week of dodging and ducking and lashing out by Pope Benedict XVI’s rapidly diminishing circle of defenders would make defrocked President Richard Nixon and his White House burglary ring proud.

It hasn’t been news for decades that the leadership of the Catholic Church, from the top down, was more concerned about protecting the church from embarrassing publicity and expensive lawsuits than it was with protecting children from sexually predatory priests.

What’s new are internal Vatican documents the church fought to keep secret in a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Archdiocese suggesting that Pope Benedict himself—as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the previous pope’s enforcer for handling sexual abuse cases—intervened to shut down a church trial to defrock a priest who had sexually abused more than 200 boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis.

In 1995, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland sought direction from Ratzinger in conducting a church trial against Father Lawrence Murphy, who headed the school. Not until two years later did Ratzinger’s deputy advise Weakland to use a procedure established in 1962 to handle priests who used the confessional to solicit sex.

In 1998, Murphy wrote directly to Ratzinger to ask him to dismiss the charges, citing ill health. Several months later, Ratzinger’s deputy advised Weakland and the bishop of the Superior Diocese where Murphy had been reassigned to end the trial.

Denying Responsibility

It says a lot about how early the church knew about sexual abuse by priests that there had been a formal procedure in place since 1962 to deal with priests who trolled for sex in the confession booth.

That was decades before details of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests began emerging in the ’90s.

Now facts from Milwaukee and other abuse cases around the world suggest direct involvement by the pope himself in his previous role—not only in failing to protect children, but also in overt acts that shielded sexual abusers.

As abhorrent as those charges are, the Vatican has compounded the damage by denying any personal responsibility and attacking the news media and even victims for making the facts public and raising legitimate moral questions.

On Good Friday, of all days, in a homily attended by Pope Benedict at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the pope’s personal preacher, compared criticism of the pope to the “collective violence” and “more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism” committed against the Jews.

Really. Criticizing the pope for failing to live up to his responsibility to protect children from predatory priests is similar to Nazis murdering 6 million Jews during the Holocaust?

The statement was so outrageous it overshadowed other equally absurd remarks made by Cantalamessa in the sermon. Cantalamessa claimed he had a Jewish “friend” who was indignant over “the violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world.”

Criticizing the personal actions of a human being who holds a position of authority in the church is not an attack on “all the faithful of the whole world.”

A whole lot of the faithful around the world have been victimized. They expect the current leaders of the church to come clean and take personal responsibility for their failed—and many would say, immoral—attempts to cover up sexual abuse in the church.

Instead, the Vatican circles the wagons and their denials become more and more preposterous.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, recently promoted from Milwaukee where he was Weakland’s successor, on Palm Sunday actually compared the criticism of Pope Benedict to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The pope, Dolan said, was “now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar” and “being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo.”

Pope Benedict is not Jesus Christ. And concerned Catholics and others raising moral questions about personal actions and inactions that protected priests who raped children bear no resemblance to a howling mob shouting, “Crucify him!”

Until the pope and other church bureaucrats recognize how their own human failings contributed to the church’s crisis, they cannot really begin cleaning up their house.

More virulent homophobia won’t be the answer either.

Ultimately, the Catholic Church will have to become more open to real change, including married priests, male and female.

When the priesthood is closed to anyone with a desire for a healthy sex life, it is going to attract some people with unhealthy ones.


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