Daunting and Soothing: Abuse Report Gets Facts Straight

Review Makes Clear That Pope Is a Hero in Church Reform

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ROME, SEPT. 9, 2010 (Zenit.org).- I must have looked pretty bizarre on the beach this summer with "Pope Benedict XVI and the Sex Abuse Crisis" in hand. Indeed, through the first chapters it seemed like Hurricane Earl had come to ruin my summer, but persevering through the book, the clouds cleared and left me with a brighter outlook on this very difficult time for the Church.

Written by Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson (president of Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Almanac editor respectively), “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sex Abuse Crisis” presents a clear, objective and comprehensive view of sexual abuse among the clergy. Besides presenting the hard worldwide facts and figures of the scandal, it focuses on Benedict XVI’s actions and reactions from his time as bishop to the years heading the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and through his reign as Pope.

After six months of confusing news reports and general hysteria in the media and in the public square, this dispassionate and fact-laden book does much to organize one’s thoughts and present verifiable truths. While the secular media continues to raise its “clerical sex abuse” flag at every turn, especially as they attempt to frame the upcoming papal visit to Britain singularly in these terms, this book demonstrates that Pope Benedict should be hailed as a hero in this tragic chapter of the Church, not assailed for “crimes against humanity” (as radical atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have proposed).

By no means is this an easy read. Opening with a report of vandalism at Pope Benedict’s childhood home, the authors invite the reader to delve into the hostility and divisiveness of the issue. As the authors trace the life of Joseph Ratzinger from that home through the turbulent waters of the 20th century, it becomes clear that our Pope is no stranger to hard issues. But he could not have expected the tidal wave of sex abuse reports that would flow into his office as head of the CDF in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s 2001 apostolic letter, “The Safeguarding of the Sacraments.” This document required bishops to report sexual violations “committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of 18 years.” Cardinal Ratzinger knew at once he would have a battle on two fronts: (1) the problem of sex abuse itself and (2) the ensuing scandal and its effects on the Church.

The authors quote a 2005 New York Times article to illustrate how seriously Cardinal Ratzinger took this task. Reviewing the reports every Friday, the Times reported, Ratzinger “found the cases so disturbing he called the work his Friday penance.”

The length and breadth of sexual abuse data is daunting. Erlandson and Bunson take the reader through the many reforms the Church has made over the centuries to combat ever-present sexual sin, illustrating that the problem is not endemic to the Church but rather, in a post-Fall world, a human failing that requires constant vigilance and renewal within the Church. From the dawn of the second millennium, the Church has written, legislated and preached to protect its flock especially in this area.

Interestingly, the issue of the correlation between sexual abuse and homosexuality was far more overtly examined in the 11th century than in the 21st, despite the fact that in the 3,000 cases reported to the CDF, 60% percent involved homosexual activity.

The most difficult part of the book is the descent into the inferno of the modern crisis. From the breaking story in 2002 to the Murphy report in Ireland, the facts and figures of sexual abuse are devastating. It is difficult to read about the suffering of the victims, let alone imagine being the person required to clean up this sea of sin and scandal.

Erlandson and Bunson offer a few unusual pieces of information. They consulted the “Insurance Journal” of the companies that insure Protestant Churches for some comparative numbers and discovered that there were more reports of sex abuse per year than in the Catholic Church. Since very few entities besides the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have commissioned a study like the John Jay Report to comprehend the scope and nature of the problem of sex abuse, the problem has sometimes mistakenly been perceived as specific to the Catholic Church.

The tragic stories and data from Germany, Australia, Canada and other countries leave the reader asking, “Where do we go from here?” The rest of the book addresses that question. First, it underscores the decisive response of United States bishops in 2002 with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” These new directives as well as the expeditious system for dealing with a sex abuser, however, came from the direction of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who identified and began addressing the issue pointedly in 2001. The British newspaper Daily Telegraph wrote in March 2010 that thanks to this Pope, "There is no safer place for a child today to be than with a Catholic priest.”

Pope Benedict’s frequent encounters with victims of sex abuse are recorded, as well as his extensive comments on the topic in interviews and homilies. By the last page, one wonders why it is that one of the most dramatic turn-around stories in history has been so ignored. Last year in the United States, there were a mere six allegations of abuse of children under age 18 out of a population of 42,000 priests and 70 million Catholics. One wonders why the Catholic Church hasn’t become the model of how to deal with this kind of crisis, instead of a synonym for sex abuse.

I personally found Erlandson and Bunson too gentle with the secular press as well as the contingency fee for lawyers who have exploited the sins of Catholics to their own greatest advantage. On the other hand, the authors’ restraint bolsters their argument, which focuses on the problem and the solutions implemented by Pope Benedict. They do, however, drop one interesting number regarding the total settlement amounts thus far (about $2 billion) and the 30% pocketed by the lawyers under the American system of lawsuits of this nature.

British papal detractors have harped on the sex abuse scandal to justify their hooligan-like attitude toward Benedict’s visit. Six months ago British columnist Christopher Hitchens wrote: “The Roman Catholic Church is headed by a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime.” In the face of such rhetorical vitriol, the calm facts and historical data presented by Erlandson and Bunson go a long way toward soothing troubled spirits.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org