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Published: Thursday, 4/1/2010

Only the Pope can address the church crisis

HOLY Week feels heavier than usual this year. The cross is weighted with unholy questions about Pope Benedict XVI's role in the alleged mismanagement of sex abuse cases.

The fast-building controversy around the Pope came into sharp focus when a major American Catholic publication urged him to stop letting his aides carry the water in responding to the allegations. An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter demanded clarity from the Pope about the widening abuse scandal in Europe, asking: "What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?"

As a Catholic who has followed the tragedy of sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States, including Toledo, I, too, saw a sickening familiarity about the shame edging closer to the Pope. The unfolding scandal, the editorial noted, has all the markings of earlier ones involving clerical abuse, such as "accusation, revelation, denial, and obfuscation, with no bishop held accountable for actions taken on their watch."

Time and again, the message sent and reinforced by the actions of Catholic leaders across America and the world has been one of self-preservation. Humble atonement and compassion seem to be overrated.

When it comes to suspected child abuse by clerics, the church hierarchy customarily circles the wagons to protect the alleged perpetrators and the church's reputation, not to mention its treasury. Saving institutional face is paramount, with platitudes about caring for the abused more a public-relations strategy than profound outreach.

Secrecy still cloaks the alleged molestation of children by priests, deacons, or other church leaders. And the instinctive, systematic, organized cover-ups of abusive priests, shuffled to new parishes by bishops to abuse again, is still being exposed in the church.

Yet, what was considered an American aberration - lax morals and all - and then an Irish problem is now rocking continental Europe. Who knows where the legacy of suppressed childhood horror at the hands of trusted clerics will surface next?

It'll happen when a victim has the courage to talk after remaining silent for years. It'll happen when painful emotions that won't stay buried finally push one adult and then another to break with social taboo and force the clergy to confront its demons.

New abuse claims are emerging on a near-daily basis in Germany, spreading to the Pope's native Bavaria and the Regensburg boys' choir, long directed by his brother.

At least 300 former Catholic students have stepped into the harsh limelight with claims of physical or sexual abuse.

And the Pope has come under scrutiny for how he handled some of those abuse cases as then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich. One especially notorious case involves a known pedophile priest who was transferred to the archbishop's diocese and assigned a pastoral position.

Church officials in Germany acknowledged the priest's reassignment was wrong - he continued to abuse children. But they stressed the mistake was made by lower-ranking subordinates who quickly took "full responsibility" for the grievous error.

Curiously, the Pope wrote to the Irish people about "repentance, healing, and renewal" in the context of the sex scandal that shook their faith. But he never alluded to the scandal engulfing the church in his homeland. His defenders dismissed suggestions that the man who once led churches in Munich and Freising bore any responsibility for allowing pedophile priests to keep their parishes.

They denounce the widening scandal as a despicable campaign to smear the Pope. During his Palm Sunday sermon, the Pope also appeared to turn on his critics by saying he would not "be intimidated by petty gossip."

This Vatican crisis is not something ordinary Catholics can ignore. The enormity of the hurt caused by the abuse of children is too great, and the response to that abuse in the past has been too hopelessly inadequate.

The scandalous pattern of church officials - either hide the ugliness within or pretend it didn't exist - must end. The marginalization of victims for decades, the payment of hush money creates a heavy cross Catholics must carry during this most solemn period of the Christian calendar.

The moral credibility of the Pope himself is tested with questions only he can answer. For the sake of truth, empathy, reconciliation, and more than 1 billion church members worldwide who want to give their spiritual leader the benefit of the doubt, the Pope has to respond directly to the crisis at his doorstep.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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