The New York Times got the ball rolling with this story:
A widening child sexual abuse inquiry in Europe has landed at the doorstep of Pope Benedict XVI, as a senior church official acknowledged Friday that a German archdiocese made “serious mistakes” in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop.
When a sex abuse scandal broke in Boston church in 2002, Pope Benedict — then Cardinal Ratzinger — was among the Vatican officials who made statements that minimized the problem and accused the news media of blowing it out of proportion.
But Christopher Hitchens (admittedly no friend of any church), writing at Slate, makes it clear that this description itself minimizes Benedict's initial efforts to quash reports about the scandal.
After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication." (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble.
As details about the scandal in Germany continue to pour forth, Andrew Sullivan says it is time for the Vatican to stop offering defensive blame-the messenger statements and come clean:
But what staggers me is once again the immediate, visceral circling of the wagons - when what is being revealed - again! - is a pattern of criminal abuse, aided and abetted by a powerful elite, led by the Pope himself. If this were a secular institution, the police would move in and shut it down.(And there is more here.)
We need a statement from the Pope explaining what he knew and didn't know about the abuse of children - and the protection of child-abusing priests - under his direct authority in Regensburg and Munich. His position does not render him above the law - or above taking personal responsibility for the crimes he was duty-bound to discover and prosecute and for the priests he did not remove from their positions of power.
However the scandal turns our, it calls attention to a bizarre dynamic that we Episcopalians have been well-positioned to observe. Since the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003, we've seen a steady stream of conservatives leave our church because it ordains gays and lesbians to join a church that is still covering up sex crimes against children. They have done so because they think the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality are morally superior to ours.
One can argue, in defense of those who have departed, that Catholic teaching is indeed superior to that of the Episcopal Church, but that the teaching has been disregarded by sinful individuals. But this ignores the systematic nature of the cover-up which the Church has carried out, and it forces defenders to argue that Catholic teaching on issues of sexuality and authority within the Church are in no way responsible for this widespread scandal. That hardly seems plausible.