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.
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. …