Pope Benedict XVI appeared to distance himself Tuesday from Vatican efforts to blame the media for the pedophile priest scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic church, telling reporters that the greatest threat to the church has come from within.
On a flight to Portugal, Benedict told reporters “the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from sin inside the church... the church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice."
The comments were both the most direct and most self-critical the pope has made about a rash of reports in Europe that priests accused of sexually abusing children were shuffled between dioceses by their superiors rather than being quickly defrocked.
For decades, the Catholic Church had approached the problem of child abusing priests with psychological counseling and prayer. Pope Benedict himself dealt with Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of an influential Catholic order in Mexico who had sexually molested boys, in 2006 by ordering him to a private life of "prayer and penance."
But today Benedict signaled stronger action against abusers going forward, saying: "Forgiveness does not substitute justice.” In fact, stronger action has already begun to be taken as the pope seeks to quell the biggest crisis to hit the church since he was elected in 2005.
Bishops accused of failing to act against accused child molesters have resigned their posts in Belgium, Ireland, and Germany, and the Vatican has moved to take over a financially powerful Legion of Christ, which was founded by Maciel, who passed away in 2008. On May 9, Benedict accepted the resignation of conservative German Bishop Walter Mixa, who was appointed to his post in one of Benedict's earliest actions on becoming pope. Mixa admitted to slapping children and is also under investigation for sexual and financial misconduct.
Nowhere has the effort to redress the sins of the past been greater than in Ireland. On May 6, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Irish Bishop Joseph Duffy, who said he was aware of abuse accusations against a priest but did not inform the police. Three other Irish bishops, named in government reports about mishandled abuse claims, have had their resignations accepted.
Church doing enough?
Pat Buckley, an Irish bishop considered a renegade, says the pace of change is still too slow. "The church still hasn't accepted the resignations of some of the bishops. As the politician Alan Dukes recently said, perhaps the way forward is for everyone to resign and the church to then reorganize," he said.
The Catholic Communications Office in Ireland told the Monitor that resignation is a personal decision. The scandals, which date to exposure of priests' sexual abuse in 1994, were reignited by two government reports last year.
Deirdre Kerry, with Irish child-abuse charity One in Four, says the church has improved, but that more consistency and transparency is needed.
"The church does now have very robust child-protection guidelines," she says. "The problem is that ... it comes down to the discretion of the bishop." The Report of the Ferns Inquiry, published in 2005, criticized former bishops of the Ferns diocese in Ireland for failing to deal with the allegations of sexual abuse made against priests. Priests had been moved to different parishes or sent for psychological treatment.
Theologian Vincent Twomey, a friend of Pope Benedict's, acknowledges that the church made grave mistakes and is now rectifying them. "I have come around to the following point of view," he says. "First of all, it's a wake-up call – bad things were done and we have to deal with that. Secondly, for the first time since the Reformation, Irish Catholics will have to choose to be Catholics."