By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
When talk of a papal visit to the United States in 2008 first began to circulate, some voices in the American church, including at least two cardinals, pressed for Benedict XVI to visit Boston. As the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis, or so this argument went, Boston would give the pope an opportunity to tackle the recent scandals head-on.
In the end, that hypothesis was nixed. As it turns out, Benedict hardly needed to go to Boston tackle sexual abuse.
Before even arriving in the United States, the pope broached the subject in comments to the press aboard the papal plane.
“We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future,” the pope said.
Benedict then argued that efforts to address the crisis have to unfold on three levels: the legal and juridical, the pastoral, and programs of prevention to ensure that future priests are “sound.” Pointedly, the pope said that “it’s more important to have good priests than to have many.”
By way of background, this was not a case of the pope being surprised by a question and saying more than he intended. Reporters aboard the papal plane had been asked to submit their questions days in advance, and the four that were actually put to the pope were selected by his spokesperson. So was the sequence, with the question about the crisis coming first. Further, Vatican officials had said that the pope would speak entirely in Italian, but when a reporter asked if he would field the sex abuse question in English, he readily agreed.
All this suggests that the pope wanted to take the question, and had thought about what he intended to say.
In effect, confirmation came this evening in Benedict’s address to the American bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The pope devoted five full paragraphs to sexual abuse of children, referring to it as “evil” and a “sin.”
In perhaps the most dramatic phrase, the pope conceded, quoting Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops, that the crisis was “sometimes very badly handled.”
The pope pledged the church to pursue healing and reconciliation with those “so seriously wronged.”
Benedict went on to locate the Catholic sex abuse crisis within the broader context of sexual “mores” in the culture, suggesting that the “scourge” of sexual abuse of children is found in “every sector of society.”
Nonetheless, the pope was blunt in his admission of the church’s failures. At one point he appeared to concede that the “scale and gravity” of the crisis had not always been understood – among other things, the pope may have had in mind his own comments from November 2002, prior to his election, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asserted that “less than one percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type.” Yet a 2004 John Jay report prepared by the U.S. bishops found accusations against 4,392 priests, equaling about 4 percent of all U.S. priests between 1950 and 2002.
Nor does it appear that Benedict is done. Prior to the trip, the pope’s top deputy, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, said in media interviews that the pope would also discuss the crisis during his Saturday Mass for priests and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Whether the pope has any other plans up his sleeve – for example, whether he might still make a last-minute addition to his schedule and meet with victims – remains to be seen. In an interview shortly before the trip with NCR, the Vatican nuncio, or ambassador, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, seemed to hint at such a possibility, saying it was “within the field of possibility.”
Sambi also proved prophetic when asked about criticism that the pope’s official itinerary seemed calculated to avoid echoes of the sex abuse crisis.
“Be patient, and you will see that he's not avoiding the problem,” Sambi said in early April. “He’s not the kind of man who hides from difficulties.”
In the end, fears in some Catholic circles beforehand that the American media would impose the sex abuse storyline on Benedict’s six-day trip to the United States have proved largely unfounded.
If anybody’s “imposing” the sex abuse storyline, so far it’s not the press – it’s the pope.