by John L. Allen Jr.
March 17, 2010
John L. Allen Jr.
is NCR senior correspondent.
His Email address
Pope Benedict XVI
delivers a blessing
at the start of his
general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 17.
Gino Burresi may sound like the name of a shortstop from the
'50s, but among Vatican insiders, it marks a watershed in the sexual
For those with eyes to see, the fall
from grace of Burresi, a charismatic Italian priest and founder of
the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, shortly after
the election of Pope Benedict XVI, was taken as a signal that the
days of lethargy and cover-up were over.
Burresi, 73 at the time, was barred from public ministry in May
2005, just one month after the election of Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger to the church's top job. While the decree cited abuses
of confession and spiritual direction, Vatican sources were clear
that accusations of sexual abuse involving Burresi and seminarians,
dating to the 1970s and '80s, were a principal motive for the action
When the same axe fell a few months later on Mexican priest
Marcial Maciel Degollado, the high-profile founder of the
Legionaries of Christ, against whom accusations of abuse had
likewise been hanging around for the better part of a decade, the
message seemed unmistakable: There's a new sheriff in town.
In retrospect, the Burresi and Maciel cases crystallized a
remarkable metamorphosis in Joseph Ratzinger vis-à-vis the
sexual abuse crisis. As late as November 2002, well into the
eruption in the United States, he seemed just another Roman cardinal
Yet as pope, Benedict XVI became
a Catholic Elliot Ness - disciplining Roman favorites long
regarded as untouchable, meeting sex abuse victims in both the
United States and Australia, embracing "zero tolerance" policies
once viewed with disdain in Rome, and openly apologizing for the
carnage caused by the crisis.
In a papacy sometimes marred by scandal and internal confusion,
Benedict's handling of the sexual abuse crisis has often been touted
as a bright spot - one case, at least, in which the expectations of
the cardinals who elected him for a firmer hand on the rudder seem
to have been fulfilled.
That background makes the scandals now engulfing the church in
Europe especially explosive, because by putting the pope's all but
forgotten tenure as the Archbishop of Munich from May 1977 to
February 1982 under a microscope, they threaten to once again make
Benedict seem more like part of the problem than the solution.
As of this writing, there's at least one case on the record of a
priest accused of abuse who was reassigned in Munich while Ratzinger
was in charge, and who went on to commit other acts of abuse. The
vicar general at the time has assumed "full responsibility" and
insisted that Ratzinger wasn't informed, but it nevertheless
happened on his watch.
For all anyone knows at the moment,
there may be other such cases. The question now is whether
Ratzinger's past may trump Benedict's present.
What weighs more heavily:
Benedict's willingness to weed out
abusers and to acknowledge the damage they left behind, or the
church's inability to enforce similar accountability for bishops
who failed to act - a failure possibly reflected in the pope's
own stint as a diocesan leader three decades ago?
That question is certain to put Benedict
XVI's entire record on the sexual abuse issue, stretching over more
than three decades of leadership in the Catholic church, under new
Prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Munich by Pope Paul VI in
March 1977, Joseph Ratzinger had been a professional theologian, not
His natural habitat, so to speak, was
not the rectory or the diocesan chancery, but the faculty lounge of
prestigious German universities in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and
The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising is a sprawling jurisdiction,
one of the largest in the world in terms of budget, personnel, and
physical plant. It encompasses almost 800 parishes, divided into 40
deaneries. Serving as archbishop was Ratzinger's first real taste of
nuts-and-bolts administrative work, and the record seems to show
that it wasn't his top priority.
For one thing, the newly elected John Paul II tried to appoint
Ratzinger in early 1979 as prefect of the Congregation for
Catholic Education in Rome. Ratzinger demurred, saying it was
too soon after his arrival in Munich, and John Paul agreed to hold
off - but made it clear he wouldn't wait forever.
In a sense, from that point forward,
Ratzinger's horizons were much larger than Munich.
Almost from the moment Ratzinger became archbishop, he was drawn
into matters outside the archdiocese. Made a cardinal in June 1977,
he participated in the two conclaves of 1978, electing John Paul I
and John Paul II. In 1980, he served as the relator, or
general secretary, of the highly contentious Synod for the
Behind the scenes, John Paul enlisted
Ratzinger's help in supporting the fledgling Solidarity movement in
Poland, taking him along on his first 1979 homecoming.
That background lends a whiff of credibility to claims that
Ratzinger was not personally involved in decisions about the
assignment of priests, since there's every reason to believe that
administrative matters of all sorts weren't on his radar screen. In
1984, when the controversial book
The Ratzinger Report appeared, a
group of Munich priests issued a letter of protest, among other
things claiming that while Ratzinger had been their shepherd, they
had virtually no contact or dialogue with him.
Whether that will be enough to insulate Benedict from the fallout of
decisions made in his name, however, remains to be seen.
Late last week, the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung
broke the story of a priest, now identified as Peter Hullermann
from the Essen diocese, who had been accused of sexual abuse -
including forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex - and sent
to Munich for therapy in 1980, with Ratzinger's consent.
Hullermann was then given a pastoral
assignment in the archdiocese, apparently without Ratzinger's
knowledge, where he went on to commit other acts of abuse for which
he was criminally convicted in 1986 - well after Ratzinger had
relocated to Rome in 1982. Hullermann paid a court-imposed fine and
served a sentence on probation.
Despite that, he continued to serve in a
variety of posts in the archdiocese until March 15, when he was
The cleric who served as Ratzinger's vicar general in Munich,
Gerhard Gruber, assumed "full responsibility" for the original
1980 assignment, insisting that there were more than 1,000 priests
in the archdiocese at the time and that Ratzinger entrusted that
kind of personnel matter to subordinates.
To be sure, not everyone was ready to accept that version of events.
"We find it extraordinarily hard to
believe that Ratzinger didn't reassign the predator, or know
about the reassignment," said Barbara Blaine, of Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests, the leading advocacy group
for sex abuse victims in the Catholic church.
The revelation about Ratzinger's Munich
years is part of a mounting sex abuse crisis in Germany, with more
than 300 allegations of abuse in various church-run institutions.
The president of the German bishops' conference, Archbishop
Robert Zollitsch, met with Benedict XVI on March 12 to discuss
the crisis, and has pledged a full investigation.
The German meltdown, in turn, comes as Benedict XVI is still working
on a pastoral letter to Ireland to address a massive sex abuse
crisis in that once ultra-Catholic nation, and as similar scandals
begin to explode in Holland, Switzerland, and Austria.
Church-watchers in Germany say that reporters and activists are now
feverishly combing through Ratzinger's Munich years, searching for
other cases of predator priests who slipped through the cracks.
The Vatican has reacted angrily to
attempts to link Benedict XVI to the crisis on the basis of his
Munich years, insisting that those attempts have "failed."
Ratzinger was appointed the prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981, making him the Vatican's top
He had little direct responsibility for
matters involving sexual abuse by priests, which typically came to
Rome's attention only in the rare instances in which a diocesan
bishop wanted to laicize a priest without his consent - in which
case, the matter fell to one of the Vatican's canonical tribunals.
To the extent anyone was tracking the sex abuse issue at the level
of policy, it tended to be the Congregation for Clergy, whose main
interest usually seemed to be defending the due process rights of
To be sure, Ratzinger always had an exalted theology of the
priesthood, and little patience for priests who sullied their
office. Yet for more than two decades after his arrival in Rome in
1981, there's no evidence that he broke with the standard Vatican
attitude at the time - that while priests may occasionally do
reprehensible things, talk of a "crisis" was the product of a media
and legal campaign to wound the church.
Moreover, Ratzinger was personally responsible for one high-profile
case which, in the eyes of critics, confirmed the Vatican's
unwillingness to confront the problem: Charges of sexual abuse
against Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
Accusations that Maciel had abused members of the controversial
order had circulated for several decades, but in 1998 a group of
former members dumped the case directly in Ratzinger's lap. They
filed a canonical complaint with the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith, since its disciplinary section handles certain serious
offenses under canon law, including abuse of the sacrament of
penance, and Maciel was accused of absolving his victims in the
That complaint languished until late 2001, when the mushrooming
crisis in the States put new pressure on the Vatican to engage the
sexual abuse issue across the board. Still, even though an
investigation was launched, no action was taken against Maciel for
the next four years - in part, critics said, because he was
protected by influential Vatican patrons, up to and including John
Paul II himself.
Ratzinger's attitude toward the crisis at the time can perhaps best
be gauged from comments he made on November 30, 2002, during an
appearance in Murcia, Spain, at a conference organized by the
Catholic University of St. Anthony.
During a Q&A session after his talk,
Ratzinger was asked:
"This past year has been difficult
for Catholics, given the space dedicated by the media to
scandals attributed to priests. There is talk of a campaign
against the church. What do you think?"
This was Ratzinger's reply:
In the church, priests are also
sinners. But I am personally convinced that the constant
presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests,
especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the
percentage of these offenses among priests is not higher than in
other categories, and perhaps it is even lower.
In the United States, there is
constant news on this topic, but less than one percent of
priests are guilty of acts of this type.
The constant presence of these news
items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information
or to the statistical objectivity of the facts. Therefore, one
comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated,
that there is a desire to discredit the church.
Making Ratzinger's defensive tone all
the more striking, his comments came after a summit between Vatican
officials and American cardinals, as well as officers of the
bishops' conference, in April 2002 to discuss the American crisis, a
meeting in which Ratzinger participated.
For the record, in claiming "less than one percent" of priests were
guilty, Ratzinger was relying on an analysis by writer Philip
Jenkins, published in the mid-1990s, of the Chicago archdiocese.
In the end, the U.S. bishops' own study
concluded that accusations have been lodged against 4.3 percent of
diocesan priests over the last 50 years, and some critics regard
even that total as under-reported.
Though it didn't look like it at the time, the turning point in
Ratzinger's attitude came in May 2001, with a legal document from
John Paul II titled
Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.
Technically known as a motu proprio,
the document assigned juridical responsibility for certain grave
crimes under canon law, including sexual abuse of a minor, to
Ratzinger's congregation. It also compelled diocesan bishops all
over the world to forward their case files to Rome, where the
congregation would make a decision about the appropriate course of
In the wake of the motu proprio, Ratzinger dispatched a
letter to the bishops of the world, subjecting accusations of sexual
abuse against priests to the authority of his office and insisting
upon "confidentiality," which critics typically regard as a
code-word for secrecy.
Whatever the merits of the 2001 letter, it set the stage for a
dramatic change in Ratzinger's approach.
Msgr. Charles Scicluna, a Maltese priest who serves as the
Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith - in effect, its lead prosecutor - said in a recent interview
with the Italian Catholic paper L'Avvenire that the motu proprio
triggered an "avalanche" of files in Rome, most of which arrived in
2003 and 2004.
Eventually, Scicluna said, more than
3,000 cases worked their way through the congregation.
By all accounts, Ratzinger was punctilious about studying the files,
making him one of the few churchmen anywhere in the world to have
read the documentation on virtually every Catholic priest ever
credibly accused of sexual abuse. As a result, he acquired a
familiarity with the contours of the problem that virtually no other
figure in the Catholic church can claim.
Driven by that encounter with what he would later refer to as
"filth" in the church, Ratzinger seems to have undergone something
of a "conversion experience" throughout 2003-04.
From that point forward, he and his
staff seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess.
Of the 500-plus cases that the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith dealt with prior to Benedict's election to the papacy,
the substantial majority were returned to the local bishop
authorizing immediate action against the accused priest - no
canonical trial, no lengthy process, just swift removal from
ministry and, often, expulsion from the priesthood.
In a more limited number of cases, the
congregation asked for a canonical trial, and in a few cases the
congregation ordered the priest reinstated.
That marked a stark reversal from the initial insistence of Vatican
officials, Ratzinger included, that in almost every instance the
accused priest deserved the right to canonical trial. Having sifted
through the evidence, Ratzinger and Scicluna apparently drew the
conclusion that in many instances the proof was so overwhelming that
immediate action was required.
Among insiders, the change of climate was dramatic.
In the complex world of court politics at
the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith became the beachhead for an aggressive response to the
sexual abuse crisis.
Ratzinger and his deputies sometimes
squared off against other departments which regarded the "zero
tolerance" policy as an over-reaction, not to mention a distortion
of the church's centuries-long canonical tradition, in which
punishments are supposed to fit the crime, and in which tremendous
discretion is usually left in the hands of bishops and other
superiors to mete out discipline.
Behind the scenes, some Vatican personnel actually began to grumble
that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had
"drunk the Kool-aid," in the sense of accepting the case for
sweeping changes in the way priests are supervised and disciplined.
Ratzinger's transformation can also be glimpsed from an exchange
with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, which George
described in April 2005, just after the conclave which propelled
Benedict XVI to the papacy.
Two days before the opening of the conclave, George met Ratzinger in
his Vatican office to discuss the American sex abuse norms,
including the "one strike and you're out" policy. Those norms had
been approved grudgingly in late 2002 by the Vatican, and only for a
five-year period. George said he wanted to discuss with Ratzinger
the arguments for making the norms permanent.
Ratzinger, according to George, showed
"a good grasp of the situation."
Forty-eight hours later, Ratzinger was
the new pope. As is the custom, the cardinals gathered in the
Sistine Chapel made their way, one-by-one, to the new pontiff in
order to pledge their support and obedience. As George kissed his
hand, Benedict XVI made a point of telling him, in English, that he
remembered the conversation the two men had about the sexual abuse
norms, and would attend to it.
The new pope's first words to a senior American prelate, in other
words, were a vow of action on the crisis.
While Benedict XVI's opening salvo with Burresi rang insider bells,
his next move, with Maciel, got the attention of the wider world. In May 2006, NCR broke the news that
Benedict had barred Maciel from public ministry, instructing him to
live a life of prayer and penance.
Due to his advanced age, no
formal canonical trial would be held, but the verdict nevertheless
seemed clear: Guilty.
Though Maciel died in January 2008, revelations of various scandals
surrounding him continue to emerge - including fathering a child out
of wedlock, and plagiarizing some of his best-known spiritual
Benedict eventually ordered an apostolic investigation of
the Legionaries, which is now reportedly complete, though it will be
some time before conclusions are forwarded to the pope for whatever
action he might take.
Given Maciel's high international profile, and his reputation for
friends in high places, Benedict's move was widely taken as proof
positive of a new dispensation in the Catholic church: If you're
credibly accused of abuse, no power on heaven or earth will protect
you from paying the price.
In his recent interview, Scicluna dismissed charges that Benedict
XVI has engaged in any cover-up on sex abuse as "false and
Without naming names, Scicluna lauded
"courage in taking up some cases
which were extremely difficult and delicate, sine acceptione
personarum (without exception for anyone)."
The reference to Maciel seemed obvious,
especially since Scicluna had been the lead investigator in the
Given the new tone Benedict had set, it was little surprise that in
2006, the Congregation for Bishops announced that a lightly modified
version of the American norms for sexual abuse, including the
"one-strike" policy, had been permanently approved. They were
subsequently issued as "particular law" in the United States, making
them binding on all American dioceses and eparchies (jurisdictions
of the Eastern rite churches.)
Benedict's transformation into an apostle of "zero tolerance" has
also been clear in press discussion in both Ireland and Germany.
News reports indicate that the Vatican has supported local bishops
in adopting tough policies along the lines of the American norms.
That amounts to a remarkable reversal of fortune, given the
ambivalence displayed in Rome not so long ago to the very same
policies the papacy is now extolling as a global model.
Nowhere was Benedict's new tone on the sex abuse crisis clearer than
during his April 2008 trip to the United States.
The $64,000 question coming into the trip was whether the pope would
openly engage the crisis, or attempt to pass it off as water under
the bridge. Early signals did not seem promising; Benedict declined
to visit Boston, the epicenter of the recent crisis, and had no
session with victims on his public itinerary.
From the opening moments, however, it
was clear that Benedict had no intention of ducking the question.
"We are deeply ashamed, and we will
do all that is possible [so] that this cannot happen in the
future," the pope said in a session with reporters aboard the
papal plane April 15 in response to a question from NCR.
Benedict argued that efforts to address
the crisis have to unfold on three levels: the legal and juridical,
the pastoral, and programs of prevention to ensure that future
priests are "sound."
Pointedly, the pope said,
"It's more important to have good
priests than to have many."
In his address to American bishops at
the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday
evening, April 16, he returned to the theme. The pope devoted five
full paragraphs to sexual abuse of children, referring to it as
"evil" and a "sin."
On April 17 came the most dramatic papal gesture, and the biggest
news flash, of the entire trip - an unannounced and unprecedented
meeting with five victims of sexual abuse. Most were from the Boston
area, and they were accompanied by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of
Boston. The meeting took place in the Vatican embassy in Washington
and lasted roughly a half-hour.
Three of the five victims spoke to NCR and other media about the
experience, describing it as a catharsis.
"I think there are already changes
happening. There's definitely so much hope right now," said
Faith Johnston, whose priest abuser was convicted of raping her
when she was 15 and working Saturdays in a Catholic rectory.
She said after the meeting that she had
been unable to speak about her abuse in the presence of the pope,
and was able to offer him only her tears.
Benedict repeated that pattern during his July 2008 visit to
Australia for World Youth Day, once again meeting privately
with victims and speaking publicly about the crisis in remarkably
For the first time, the pope issued a direct apology in his own
"I am deeply sorry for the pain and
suffering the victims have endured," Benedict said, assuring
them that "as their pastor, I share in their suffering."
By the time the crisis in Ireland
erupted last year, a new Vatican script seemed to be in place.
Papal statements of concern were quickly
issued, and a summit of Irish bishops and senior Vatican officials
was swiftly convened for mid-February. Similarly in Germany,
Zollitsch was in the pope's office briefing him on the crisis less
than a month after it first blew up.
For anyone who recalled the slow and defensive response to the
American situation eight years earlier, the change in Rome seemed
A tale of two
Therein, however, lies the rub: relatively few people know or care
how far the Vatican, or the pope, have come over the past eight
Insiders rightly insist that Benedict XVI deserves credit for
breaking the wall of silence, and for demonstrating that no abuser
will be protected on his watch. Yet for most outsiders, meaning the
vast majority of Catholics and virtually everyone else on the
planet, all that amounts to a no-brainer that should have been
accomplished long ago.
From the beginning, the "sex abuse crisis" has actually been an
interlocking set of two problems: the abuse committed by some
priests, and the administrative failures of some bishops who should
have known better to deal with the problem.
In general, the impact of Benedict's "conversion" has been felt
mostly on that first level - the determination to punish abusers, to
adopt stringent policies governing future cases, to reach out to
victims and to apologize for the suffering they've endured.
So far, Benedict has not adopted any new
accountability mechanisms for bishops. Aside from a few instances
such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, few bishops have been
asked, or instructed, to resign.
As long as the perception is that the Catholic church has fixed
its priests' problem but not its bishops' problem, many
people will see that as a job half done.
In turn, that unfinished business is what makes the revelations in
Germany so potentially damaging. To be sure, one could reasonably
insist that Benedict's policies as pope are far more important than
whatever happened on his watch in Munich thirty years ago.
Yet if other cases of abusers who were
reassigned emerge, even fair-minded people with no axe to grind may
be tempted to ask:
Can Benedict XVI credibly ride herd
on bishops for failing to manage the crisis, if his own record
as a diocesan leader isn't any better?
Much about the church's capacity to
craft an "exit strategy" from the crisis - and, perhaps, much about
Benedict's own legacy - may hinge on his ability to offer a