Friday, April 30, 2010

church pitted against society and itself

NYTimes | As the sexual abuse crisis continues to unfold in the Roman Catholic Church, with more victims coming forward worldwide and three bishops resigning last week alone, it is clear the issue is more than a passing storm or a problem of papal communications.

Instead, the church is undergoing nothing less than an epochal shift: It pits those who hold fast to a more traditional idea of protecting bishops and priests above all against those who call for more openness and accountability. The battle lines are drawn between the church and society at large, which clearly clamors for accountability, and also inside the church itself.

Uncomfortably, the crisis also pits the moral legacies of two popes against each other: the towering and modernizing John Paul II, who nonetheless did little about sexual abuse; and his successor, Benedict XVI, who in recent years, at least, has taken the issue of pedophile priests more seriously.

He has had little choice, given the depth of the scandal and the anger it has unleashed. But when supporters defend Benedict, they are implicitly condemning John Paul and how an entire generation of bishops and the Vatican hierarchy acted in response to criminal behavior.

“The church realizes that it doesn’t have a way out, at least not until it confronts the entirety of its problems,” said Alberto Melloni, the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, Italy.

This latest eruption of the scandal, nearly a decade after the costly turmoil in the American church, may just be beginning. Last week, a bishop in Ireland resigned, acknowledging he had covered up abuse, while one in Germany and one in Belgium also stepped down, admitting that they themselves had abused children. Other resignations are expected in Ireland after two government reports documented decades of widespread abuse and a cover-up in church-run schools for the poor.

The question, Mr. Melloni said, is whether the Vatican will hew to old explanations that pedophilia is the byproduct of a sexual revolution it had always fought, or whether it will confront the failures in church leadership that allowed sexual abuses to go unpunished.

Benedict expressed both views in a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics released March 20, his most complete remarks on the sexual abuse crisis. He said that secularism and “misguided” interpretations of the reforms of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council contributed to the context of the abuse.

But he also strongly decried a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal.”

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