The Bad Shepherd

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

Why Pope Benedict XVI may not be able to heal his church.

Two years ago Pope Benedict XVI--once known as "God's Rottweiler"--displayed his gentler side on a pilgrimage to America. Television pundits spoke of his soft white hair, his smile, "his great warmth and his sense of humor," says Thomas Noble, head of the history department at Notre Dame. On the trip Benedict confronted head-on the American church's sexual-abuse crisis, a catastrophe that first came to light in Boston in the 1990s and unfolded over the years, involving more than 10,000 children and 4,400 priests. The pope even met firsthand with a small group of abuse victims in Washington.

But those victims aren't sure he heard what they were saying. One of them was Bernie McDaid, 11 years old when his parish priest started fondling him during car rides in his Boston neighborhood. McDaid, now 54, says that during the meeting, Benedict read a 10-minute speech offering an apology on behalf of the church. Then each victim had a private five-minute audience with the pontiff, who stood, unmoving, before an altar. McDaid says he told the pope what happened to him in detail and warned the Holy Father that sex abuse was "a cancer" in the church. Benedict just listened and nodded. "He would only speak to me when I pushed him for words," says McDaid.

The image is apt: Benedict, frozen and mute as a ferocious desperation spreads through the Roman Catholic Church. Each week reveals more cases of sexual abuse committed by European priests--several of whom were allowed by church authorities to continue working with children even after their transgressions became known. Scores of priests have been implicated in Dublin alone; one admitted to abusing more than 100 children, while another said he did so every couple of weeks for 25 years. The most irate of the faithful are calling for Benedict's resignation, something that's happened only a handful of times (and never in response to the disapproval of the masses).

It is a reforming moment, an opportunity to sweep away centuries of Vatican culture--to articulate values, engage with the laity, and shine a light into the church's secret corners. Benedict could actually turn it to his advantage by leveraging the qualities for which he is both criticized and admired--his deep familiarity with the Vatican bureaucracy and his passion for theological orthodoxy. But those who've studied the pope, and even many who applaud his other virtues, say he is not the man to rise to this occasion.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned his Rottweiler nickname by silencing and firing Catholic academics who questioned dogma. But the abuse of children seems to have drawn no similar ire. When he was archbishop in Munich in 1979 a convicted pedophile priest was assigned to his jurisdiction, given some therapy, then sent back out to a parish where he molested children again. Documents from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, obtained by The New York Times, show that in the late 1990s -Ratzinger declined to defrock Lawrence C. Murphy, an aged priest known to have molested about 200 boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin from 1950 to 1974. …