The Catholic Church: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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Pope Benedict XVIIt seems the Catholic Church will never escape the stigma surrounding its handling of pedophile priests.  Although many of the instances happened years, even decades prior, only recently has the crisis surfaced to a global stage, mostly because of an onslaught of lawsuits and victims worldwide finally reporting their abuse.   

Fueling the fire was last week’s New York Times story questioning Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of pedophile priests when he was both archbishop of Munich and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s doctrinal office that was given responsibility in 2001 by Pope John Paul II to investigate the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

One case in particular involves the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, an American priest in Wisconsin, who molested as many as 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1974. It appears that Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of these atrocities in 1996, when he headed up the CDF (from 1981 to 2005) but did nothing to discipline or defrock Rev. Murphy. The pontiff is also taking heat within his home country, when he was Munich archbishop and a priest was allowed to resume pastoral work with children even while receiving therapy for pedophilia.

No doubt recent news events have stymied the Vatican’s efforts to derail the abuse scandal crisis. Just a few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI was hailed as a hero for sending a mea culpa letter to Catholics in Ireland apologizing for the sexual abuses within the country while chastising Irish bishops for their grave errors in judgment. His Holiness went so far as to say the guilty will face God and the police.

Pope Benedict does get kudos for addressing the abuse scandals, although much of the Easter celebration this week undoubtedly will be overshadowed by talk of the crisis among church parishioners. The Vatican insists however that Ratzinger was unaware of the Munich priest’s move to the pastoral job and has defended its handling of the Wisconsin case.

While the Catholic Church’s plan to set new guidelines for dealing with the problem is a very small, incremental step, it does show that the Vatican is taking responsibility. This runs counter to the non-action of years past.

The reality is that the Vatican has a serious ‘moral credibility’ problem it can’t shake. While the percentage of Catholics worldwide has remained steady over the past several years, the image of church has severely diminished. This may already have affected membership, as Catholic populations in Europe recently failed to show any growth.

Similar to the president representing the United States, the pope is the chief spokesperson for the Catholic Church. It is his responsibility to address the abuse scandals vigorously, take action and admonish, yet forgive the guilty. The pope has begun this process and should continue his efforts, even though they are foiled at the moment.

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