April 26, 2005

This pope can seize the moment on sexual abuse cases

Houston Chronicle


Although his papacy is only a week old, Benedict XVI is already assured a prominent place in the culture wars. Admirers and critics alike will pay close attention not only to his pronouncements on issues like bioethics and birth control, but also to his response to the crisis of sexually abusive priests.

Historians will debate why the politically visionary Pope John Paul II, who was well briefed by many bishops on the sex abuse scandals that erupted in 1993, stood passive, offering minimal leadership as criminal and civil actions mounted. And they may yet be surprised by Pope Benedict XVI: If he stays true to his moral absolutism, the Vatican could take a stronger stance against priests who have molested children.

The notorious case of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a powerful Mexican priest who founded his own order and lives in its seminary in Rome, suggests that the pope's approach to this issue may be evolving. While the case is yet to be decided and all legal proceedings are secret, it may offer some hope to victims of abuse looking for a change in Vatican policy under Pope Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In 1998, when Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a legal tribunal of the congregation accepted a case by nine seminarians who accused Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, of sexual assault. The allegations, stretching back to the '60s, have been presented to the Vatican on several occasions.

The response has always been silence. Initially, Ratzinger as well failed to respond; in 1999 he shelved the case, later telling a Mexican bishop that it was not "prudent" to proceed against a man who had helped the church by attracting young men to the priesthood.

Posted by kshaw at April 26, 2005 07:20 AM