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Pope Benedict Accused of Mishandling Sexual Abuse Cases: 4 Essential Reads

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A German report accused retired Pope Benedict XVI of mishandling several sexual abuse cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are some of our articles on the crisis in the Catholic Church.

As published byThe conversation

When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013 – the first leader of the Catholic Church to do so in more than half a millennium – the sex abuse crisis had already rocked the Church for years.

During the conservative theologian’s papacy, the church revised canon law and announced new guidelines in an effort to address clergy abuses.

But a new report accuses Benedict of mishandling at least four sexual abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich, Germany, in the 1970s and 1980s. The investigation, which covers abuse in the diocese from 1945 in 2019, concluded that the former pope had failed to properly act on the claims or punish the priests – claims which Benedict XVI dismissed.

The charges against a living, albeit retired, pope underscore how the sex abuse crisis has rocked the Church. Here are some of The Conversation’s many articles examining the crisis over the years – both its roots and potential avenues for reform.

1. Years of scandal

High-profile reporting has consistently brought the crisis to the headlines over the past 20 years, particularly the Boston Globe’s famous “Spotlight” investigation in 2002 and the film it inspired in 2015.

But the paper trail documenting patterns of abuse — and cover-ups — dates back to at least the 1950s, according to Brian Clites, an expert on clergy sex abuse. It was then that US bishops began referring priests to church-run treatment centers, rather than reporting abuse to independent authorities. Hush money payments followed.

Lawyers Ulrich Wastl, Marion Westphal and Martin Pusch attend a press conference on an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising between 1945 and 2019, in Munich, Germany, January 20, 2022. Sven Hoppe/Pool via Reuters

In the 1990s, as lawsuits piled up, “national outcry forced dioceses across the country to create public standards for how they dealt with accusations of abuse,” Clites writes, “and bishops Americans have launched new marketing campaigns to regain trust”.


Read more: The Catholic Church‘s dark history of ignoring priestly pedophilia — and silencing would-be whistleblowers


2. Speak up – and speak out

According to many experts, two obstacles to bringing abusers to justice are the hierarchy of the Church and canonical laws, which govern the Church and its members.

But in 2019, Pope Francis changed the “rule of pontifical secrecy,” which required sensitive information about the church to be kept confidential. Over the years, critics have alleged that the policy allows authorities to withhold information about sexual abuse cases, even from victims or legal authorities. Francis’ announcement lifted the rule for three situations: sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable people, failure to report or efforts to cover up such abuse, and possession of child pornography by a cleric.

Even with this change, however, transparency can prove elusive, argues law professor Christine P. Bartholomew. It describes other practices that can be used to conceal information and circumvent mandatory reporting requirements.


Read more: Pope ends rule of secrecy for Catholic sex abuse cases, but for victims, many obstacles to justice remain


3. Celibacy controversy

Other analysts trying to understand the roots of the sexual abuse crisis focus on the rules of the priesthood itself – in particular that priests be male and celibate.

But it wasn’t always so clear. Early Christian scholar Kim Haines-Eitzen explains how views on marriage have changed since the first century. The first Christian leader, Saint Paul, seemed to endorse marriage “reluctantly”, she writes, as “an acceptable choice for those who cannot control themselves”.

French Baroque painting ‘Saint Paul writing his epistles.’ Valentin de Boulogne/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Attitudes towards sex and marriage continued to be controversial for centuries, contributing to schisms between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and later the Protestant Reformation. This is still the case today, as some Catholics advocate that married men be allowed to become priests.


Read more: How views on priestly celibacy have changed in Christian history


4. Change is possible

Changing a 2,000-year-old institution is difficult, but not out of reach.

As an expert on religious change, Melissa Wilde identifies times when the Catholic Church changed course. Chief among these was Vatican II, the church’s seminal council in the 1960s that brought significant reforms to worship, such as conducting Mass in the language of parishioners, rather than Latin.

With the church mired in crises, “the church needs more than reflection,” she argues. “He needs another advice.”


Read more: The Catholic Church resists change – but Vatican II shows it is possible


– The Conversation/Rappler.com

Editor’s note: This story is a summary of articles from The Conversation archives. This is an updated version of an article originally published on October 7, 2021. It has been updated to include the January report accusing Pope Benedict of mishandling sexual abuse cases.

The conversation

Molly Jackson, Religion and Ethics Editor, The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.