Pope Benedict Calls for Catholic Church Penance, but Questions about Reform Persist

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Pope Benedict Calls for Catholic Church Penance, but Questions about Reform Persist


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


Pope Benedict XVI said it's 'necessary to perform penance' in response to public outrage at revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. But some analysts say those hoping for change are up against a deeply conservative hierarchy.

With new accounts of unconscionable behavior toward Catholic students in a Bavarian monastery, fresh reports of Vatican delay in handling a pedophile priest in California, and a papal visit this weekend to Malta, where 84 cases of child abuse by priests were recently revealed, the Roman Catholic church continues to struggle with damage control and the perception of drift in a crisis it was quite unprepared for.

Pope Benedict XVI has come under fire from critics outside the church - and some inside it - for not decisively expelling priests from the clergy when credible evidence of the sexual abuse of children emerged. The evidence dates back to his tenure as Archbishop of Munich in the 1970s, and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal enforcement body, from 1981 until his election as pontiff in 2005.

On Thursday, there were mixed messages from the Vatican. The pope said at the end of a homily delivered in Rome that in response to the "attacks of the world that talks to us of our sins," the church sees "how it is necessary to perform penance." They were perhaps the most contrite words yet from the pope on the matter. But the same day, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who as prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy has direct oversight of the world's roughly 400,000 Catholic priests, called on the clergy to descend on the Vatican to demonstrate "a determined rejection of the unjust attacks of which he is a victim."

Nevertheless, a situation that National Catholic Reported described as "the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history" is taking its toll and creating sharp expectations of change.

Outcry continues

An angry outcry continues in the US, Germany, and Ireland. In Germany, favorable views among Catholics of the pope, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, have dropped from 63 percent in 2005 to 24 percent this month. A priest in western Massachusetts last Sunday called for Pope Benedict to resign if he is not truthful about stonewalled cases of abuse. Lay Catholics have renewed calls for everything from more church openness and transparency to reforms of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

This week, Vatican officials posted their policy for handling priests who abuse children, a change from a defensive strategy of blaming the media for targeting abuse problems it says are mainly 20 years old. And for the first time, the Vatican publicly advocated turning over child abuse cases to civil authorities.

But within the church, evidence is emerging of a strong and broad countermovement to defend the pope and the church, exemplified by Cardinal Hummes's letter Thursday. The church's hierarchy appear disinclined to pursue the kind of Vatican shakeup some in the media and general Catholic public are clamoring for.

A few days before Easter, some 70 French intellectuals, corporate leaders, and actors signed a statement defending Pope Benedict. The "A call to truth" petition decried pedophili, but blamed the press for playing "gotcha" with the pope. On the same day, some 4,000 European students from the ultraconservative Opus Dei order converged in Rome to support the papacy and to blame media as "sowers of doubt and discord." Both the French and Opus Dei rallying cries emphasize the good the church has done and is still doing.

Saying no to change?

Church analysts say beneath the "blame the media" strategy is a structural opposition to reform based on ingrained tradition, culture, and belief. They argue a proud and ancient church is not eager for change - especially not under pressure created by a scandal involving sexual abuse among within the priesthood, the foot- soldiers for church teaching and outreach.

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