This year's "holy week," the most important event in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, had some of the church's greatest minds concerned with matters other than religious celebration.
Though the masses and processions leading up to Easter Sunday went forward as they have for centuries, they did so amid the emergence of sex abuse cases both old and new. Critics have charged that Pope Benedict XVI, at best, failed to deal with abusive priests. At worst, they say, he presided over a church that systematically shielded abusers from the law.
The newest case erupted today, when an attorney representing a girl who says she was abused by a priest in Minnesota charged that the Vatican declined to investigate the priest, Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, after repeated warnings from other church officials in 2005 and 2006. US authorities in 2007 formally charged Rev. Palanivel Jeyapaul with sexually assaulting a teenage girl, but he has continued to work at a Catholic school in southern India.
It's highly unlikely that Pope Benedict will resign his office in response to the abuse scandals – it's been almost 600 years since the last pope stepped down. But his character and personal beliefs will be crucial as he seeks to guide a church that claims 1 billion adherents through what the National Catholic Reporter in the United States calls the church's "largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history."
Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, elected as pope in 2005, has had an unusually difficult tenure. The German-born pontiff has been criticized as a reactionary and lambasted for "Nazi connections" that, in truth, amount to no more than what was forced on all German youths at the time.
But his public persona has been very different from that of Pope John Paul II, his avuncular predecessor. Pope Benedict has been nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" for his ferocious track record of defending the church's conservative traditions, both in his old job as cardinal in charge of doctrinal discipline and since being elected pope.
His defenders say the pope's image is unfair. They say he's taken the problem of sexual abuse by priests seriously. Vincent Twomey, a former student of the pope's who still meets with him annually to debate theology, paints a picture of a gentle, professorial figure with a fierce intellect rather than a fierce temper.
"When he and his brother were ordained, there was a parade through the town and he said to himself: 'Joseph, this is not for you, it's for the office you represent.' When I saw him come out onto the balcony after election as pope and give his shy smile and wave, I knew he was thinking the same thing," says Dr. Twomey, a retired professor of moral theology and a priest.
But the growing child abuse scandal has cast a shadow not only over the church but over the pope.
Three particular cases – in Wisconsin, Germany, and Italy/Spain – have raised questions about whether the pope knew of priests who had sexually abused children but chose not to take action against them or delayed actions against them. In all three cases, church officials say the pope was either unaware of the charges against the men or behaved properly.
'Tip of the iceberg'
Were it not for his steadfast objections to abortion and homosexuality, Ratzinger would be far to the left of any American politician. Catholic social teaching, even at its most conservative, eschews profit-seeking as a goal and promotes an economy aimed at the "common good."
But has Ratzinger's loyalty to the church gotten in the way of his dealing with pedophile priests?
Twomey says no. "Ratzinger was the one who made it much easier to suspend and [defrock] priests. He standardized the procedure and made sure the dioceses knew what to do," says Twomey. "It is now much easier to ensure a priest is defrocked."
Richard Sipe, a former monk and expert on priest celibacy, disagrees. Now married and a clinical psychologist, he says that Ratzinger has repeatedly refused to defrock priests, let alone hand them over to the authorities.
"In 1992, in Chicago, there was the first national meeting of victims of clergy sexual abuse," he says. "There were 300 people there, and I said at that time: 'The problem we are experiencing now is the tip of the iceberg, and if you follow this to its foundation, it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican.' I stand by that, because it's systemic."
Asked how he would respond to the charge of "smearing" the church, Mr. Sipe says: "I've devoted my life to helping the church and its clergy."
Twomey, for his part, holds out hope that Catholics – who, he says, are rightfully angry – will consider more deeply their religious roots. "For the first time in 150 years, people will have to choose to be Catholic instead of being born Catholics," he says.
In Ireland, the anger is particularly strong. Twomey attributes this to church misuse of its authority after the state's founding in 1922 as well as a more recent concerted attempt to rebel against the church as a representative of authority, particularly on the part of the media. "There is a hostility and [a] smear campaign," he says.
A young reformer stuck in the past?
Joseph Ratzinger has long been viewed as an archconservative, and his actions as pope have done little to challenge this perception.
The young Ratzinger was, in the 1960s, an enthusiastic reformer and a liberalizing figure within the church, like his former friend and colleague Hans Küng, the controversial liberal theologian. In 1962, Mr. Küng had Ratzinger appointed professor of dogmatics at the Catholic Faculty at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
By all accounts, the two men got on well and formed a friendship, not only socializing together but also working on the same projects.
Ratzinger ended the collaboration when he moved to Regensburg, Germany, in 1968. He was upset at student protests in Tübingen, which was becoming a center for radical protest. Since then, the two men's theological positions have come to represent entirely different interpretations of Catholicism.
In 1981, John Paul named then-Bishop Ratzinger to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the body that replaced the Inquisition as the final court of appeal in trials of heresy. It was a post he held until becoming pope.
Despite being a "priest in good standing," Küng was formally silenced by Ratzinger and removed from the office of theologian. In his book "Disputed Truth: Memoirs Volume 2," Küng depicted Ratzinger as stuck in the past.
Twomey disputes that the pope has been backsliding from liberalism: "He has remained constant – the church and society have moved on. The Second Vatican Council ... left a lot of loose edges and is open to interpretation," he says.
John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, questions whether the vagueness of Vatican II is the issue. In his book "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith," Mr. Allen wrote that the growth of militant student Marxism "shocked [Ratzinger] and helped to stimulate his more conservative stance ... what is clear is that Ratzinger's positions on several issues have evolved over the course of his career, and that evolution made him attractive to church authorities."
Twomey says the pope has put the church on the road to recovery by telling Catholics to focus on fundamentals: "The key is in his letter to the Catholics [of Ireland]: The main thrust is 'get back to the gospel,' the source of our faith,' " he says.