Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope's Handling of Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis Is Surprising, and Most Encouraging

Pope Benedict XVI has surprised just about everyone with how candidly, compassionately and effectively he has dealt with the clergy sex abuse crisis during his trip to the United States this week. Publicly and privately he took several actions that demonstrate beyond doubt that he has personally reviewed several of the victims' cases and was profoundly moved by how badly the Catholic Church treated them.

He made a point of talking about it as one of only four topics he addressed during his flight. He told the U.S. bishops they had handled the entire affair very badly and they needed to improve their administrative and pastoral response to it. He asked the 45,000 people who attended his liturgy in Washington Nationals stadium to take an active role in the pastoral response. Then, in the biggest surprise of all, he met privately with a few of the victims and Cardinal Sean O'Malley from the Boston archdiocese, where the nationwide scandal began. O'Malley said he gave the pope a notebook that listed all of the Boston victims by name--more than 1,000 in all--and asked the pope to remember them in his prayers.

For many it was a surprise that the pope mentioned the topic at all. Even better was the manner in which he discussed it, saying forthrightly how shameful it was and how committed he is to preventing such abuse from ever happening again. For the victims and the millions of U.S. Catholics who share their pain, it was probably the most encouraging week of his papacy.

As the victims' advocates have pointed out, what is needed for the encouragement to last is for the pope to commence the long-delayed final act in this sad drama: publicly holding accountable the bishops who enabled the sexual predators by transferring them from parish to parish so that they could find fresh victims to prey over. They should include Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston during much of the time the predators reigned, who now languishes in a cushy job at the Vatican; and Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles, who was not too busy building a multi-million dollar cathedral to spend years obstructing disclosure and prosecution of the predators he supervised.

The pope's surprising, encouraging actions merit sustained applause. He has given the victims the first real hope they have had in decades. If he wants to keep that hope alive, he needs to teach the bishops how grievously they erred and how important it is for them to face the consequences of their shameful behavior.

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