Two Sundays before Easter, Pope Benedict XVI sent a 4,700-word “pastoral letter” to the Roman Catholic faithful of Ireland. Read in full from the pulpits of every church in the country, the note was the Vatican’s official response to two Irish investigations, which revealed—yet again—that pedophile priests had preyed on helpless children, and that certain self-serving bishops had moved heaven and earth to cover up the truth.
The Pope apologized directly to victims and their families, saying he is “truly sorry” for “these sinful and criminal acts.” He admitted that “grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred,” but assured his flock that “the Church has done an immense amount of work in many parts of the world in order to address and remedy” past mistakes. Benedict’s letter also spoke directly to the guilty priests, known and unknown. “I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow,” he wrote. “God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing.”
The question now is whether the Pope is prepared to do the same: give an account of his actions—and conceal nothing.
Twenty-five years after the Church’s darkest secret was first exposed, the endless sex abuse scandal has finally reached the Pontiff himself. Faced with damning revelations about his own dealings with predatory priests, Benedict has come under unprecedented pressure to reveal what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did (or did not) do about it. No matter how hard the Holy See tries to blame “vile” journalists who “want to involve the Pope at all costs”—or how often Benedict insists he won’t be “intimidated by petty gossip,” as he told parishioners on Palm Sunday—his papacy is suddenly in serious doubt. Some have gone so far as to demand his resignation, and many more are convinced that the Holy Father is not telling the entire truth.
“Is this an all-time low? Absolutely,” says John Swales, a London, Ont., man who, starting at the age of 10, was repeatedly assaulted by a local priest. “The leadership is horrific. I have lost total faith in their ability to do anything with decency. How can anyone be held accountable when the Pope is not held accountable?”
Two decisions in particular—now public after so many years—have come back to haunt His Eminence, threatening to shatter his image as a no-nonsense disciplinarian and raising fresh questions about his possible role in a Vatican-wide cover-up.
In 1980, when Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the archbishop of Munich, he reportedly approved treatment for a confessed child abuser, Peter Hullermann, only to be informed a few days later that the known “danger” was being returned to priestly duties. Hullermann went on to target more altar boys, and in 1986 was sent to prison. A decade later, while the would-be pontiff was in charge of the Vatican office that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, he declined to defrock another notorious molester who assaulted more than 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. The priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, sent a personal letter to Ratzinger, begging for mercy. “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” he wrote. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.” Murphy was allowed to die a priest, buried in his vestments.
Uncomfortable questions about the Pope’s personal conduct come as the Church faces a flurry of new abuse allegations spreading across Europe. In recent weeks, as Catholics marked the holy season of Lent, hundreds of victims surfaced to tell their horrific stories, not only in Ireland, but in Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands and Benedict’s home nation of Germany. Authorities there are now investigating the possibility that the Pontiff’s older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, turned a blind eye to sexual abuse while in charge of the famed Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir (he denies such accusations).